Do Dogs Get that Eureka! Feeling?

Does successful problem solving make dogs happy, or does simply getting the reward make them happy too?

A very happy mini-Aussie... Successful problem-solving makes dogs happy and gives them 'eureka' moments
Photo: Mackland (Shutterstock)

By Zazie Todd, PhD

New research by Ragen McGowan et al (University of Agricultural Sciences, Sweden) investigates whether dogs enjoy the experience of solving a problem in order to obtain a reward, or if it is just the reward itself that makes them happy.

Rather unusually, the idea came from a study that found cattle who completed a task to earn a reward seemed to be happier than those who just received the reward. The design of McGowan et al’s study is very similar, but adjusted for dogs.

The results show that when dogs solved the problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more and were more eager to repeat the experience than if they were just given a reward. The study also found that food was a preferred reward over time with another dog and petting from a familiar human.

Six matched pairs of beagles took part (12 dogs in total). Each dog was an experimental dog for half of the time, and a control dog for the other half of the time.

The study used six pieces of equipment. When manipulated correctly by the dog, each made a distinct noise that would show the task was complete. The equipment included a dog piano that had to be pressed to play a note, a plastic box to be pushed off a stack so it would noisily hit the floor, and a paddle lever that would make a bell ring. 

Before the experiment, each dog was trained on three of the pieces of equipment while their matched pair was trained on the other three. The paired piece of equipment was present during training sessions, but the dog did not get rewards for interacting with it.

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In the experiment itself, both pieces of equipment were again present, but the situation was new. 

The experimental room had a start arena with the equipment, and a gate to a runway that led to the reward. An experimenter was hidden away, ready to open the gate at the appropriate time. An assistant led the dog into the start arena, then turned their back and did not interact with them further. When the experimental dog performed the behaviour it had been trained to do, the gate opened to give access to the ramp leading to the reward.

When it was the dog’s turn to be a control, it did not matter what it did with the equipment. The gate opened after the length of time it had taken the matched experimental dog to solve the puzzle, so the dog spent the exact same amount of time in the start arena as their pair. They also got the exact same reward their pair had obtained. In other words, the only difference between the conditions was whether or not their manipulation of the equipment would have an effect on the gate opening.

The experimental dogs were keen to get to the start arena and usually went into the room ahead of the assistant. On the other hand, the scientists noticed that the control dogs “were initially eager to enter the room during their first two or three test runs, but soon grew reluctant to enter the test room. By the end of the test sessions, these dogs would enter the start arena only after some coaxing from the handler.” 

There were other signs that dogs in the control condition were less happy than those in the experimental condition. They were less active in the start arena. They would sometimes bite or chew on the equipment, which dogs never did in the experimental condition. Once the gate had opened, they were quicker to enter the runway and leave the start arena than dogs in the experimental condition. There were no differences in mean heart rate, however.

There was more tail wagging when dogs were in the experimental condition, which also suggests they were happier.

When the reward was food or time with another dog, the control dogs were quicker to exit the start arena. There was no difference between experimental and control dogs if the reward was petting by a human they knew. But dogs in both conditions were more active when expecting a food reward, suggesting this was preferred. This is consistent with earlier studies that found dogs prefer food to petting (Okamoto et al 2009; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013;  Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012), who also looked at hand-reared wolves) 

When dogs were controls, they still received a reward but they did not have any control over their environment. Perceived lack of control is stressful for humans, so perhaps it is for dogs. In fact towards the end of the study, some of the dogs were successfully manipulating the item they had not been trained on, although of course this had no effect on the gate. 

In the experimental condition, however, dogs were able to solve the problem and make the gate open.  I am not sure if it is problem-solving, the fact it gave them control, or a combination of both that made dogs happy.

The researchers say, “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.”

Because differences in behaviour were found in the start arena, they relate to the dog learning that it can open the gate by manipulating the equipment. The scientists call it a “Eureka moment”.

What kind of opportunities do you give your dog to problem-solve and make decisions in his or her everyday life?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Feuerbacher E N, & Wynne C D L (2012). Relative efficacy of human social interaction and food as reinforcers for domestic dogs and hand-reared wolves Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98, 105-129 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8, 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067  
McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, & Keeling LJ (2014). Positive affect and learning: exploring the "Eureka Effect" in dogs. Animal cognition, 17 (3), 577-87 PMID: 24096703  
Okamoto Y, Ohtani N, Uchiyama H, & Ohta M (2009). The feeding behavior of dogs correlates with their responses to commands. The Journal of veterinary medical science / the Japanese Society of Veterinary Science, 71 (12), 1617-21 PMID: 20046029

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  1. I have a dog who barks loudly when I'm serving meals, and I've given her the option to settle down when I give her the warning cue and get served quicker, or ignore me, continue barking, and have anywhere from several minutes to hours to wait for meal delivery. She has definitely been making the former choice much more often since she's learned the rules. We do this twice a day and it's up to her to hasten delivery by controlling her behavior.

    Excellent article! It's interesting about the idea that dogs who can control their environment and what happens to them could be beneficial to their mental health and welfare.

  2. I'm not surprised that the food was preferred, these were Beagles and food is their #1 priority in life, lol. Seriously, this is a very interesting study. My current Beagle is a rescue with some abandonment issues, which would skew the data, but he will not perform problem solving/food reward tasks when he is alone. We have a treat dispensing rolley-polley that we thought he could play with while we are gone, but he will only play with it when we are home. It's probably a security issue for him. That makes me believe that controlling their own destiny does play a role in the test. By the way, my dog's biggest reward is having someone come home and interact with him, so he gets the chance to see that will be staying. It's not enough to see us, he has to touch. A pack thing from a pack-oriented breed. If you have ever seen a pile of Beagles, you know what I'm saying, they need to touch or be very close.

  3. This sounds like the converse of the classic, inescapable shock "learned helplessness" paradigm, only here the animal can do nothing to influence the desired outcome, rather than not being able to do anything to influence an aversive outcome.

  4. Beagles are 6th from the bottom of the intelligence scale for dogs. I wonder how an independent breed like the standard Poodle would have fared.

    1. Beagle owners will tell you that their beagles are super intelligent because they are great problem solvers. Poodle owners will tell you their poodles are super intelligent because they follow instructions reliably. It depends on how you define intelligence. In the human world we have the inventors and innovators and those that just do the work. The type of person you are will define which you see as 'clever'

  5. I do nosework with my dogs. My girl, Rowan, is generally somewhat anxious and not terribly confident but she loves nosework. When she leaves a room after finding all the odors, she prances and smiles and she seems *so* proud of herself. When she thinks she missed an odor, the body language is different, even though she gets praised and rewarded equally after each search (because *I* don't know if she's found all the odors, and because praise and rewards boost her confidence). She's always happy, but there is definitely a difference.

  6. I have a mini-poodle and a (ridiculous) poodle x bichon frise. I will tell you (Unknown) that they are super intelligent because they LOVE training (yep, any sort of food even kibble works) and they demand training, especially the noisy mini who barks when he decides that the Obedience class we are doing is too boring and we need to do more.
    Interesting study. Makes sense to me. The more training we do, the more training the dogs want to do and will come running to participate.


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