The Companion Animal Science Story of the Year?

Dogs love learning. Eureka!

Two border collies doing a trick in the snow

By Zazie Todd, PhD

This page contains affiliate links which means I may earn a commission on qualifying purchases at no cost to you.

Science Borealis challenged Canadian science bloggers to write about the most important science news of the year in their field. It’s incredibly tough to choose one single study. Every week we cover fascinating research about people’s relationships with their pets, and every one of those studies deserves to be chosen. But there was one paper that really captured our readers’ imagination. It’s one of our most shared stories of the year and it was picked up by the Daily Mail too!

The paper, by Ragen McGowan et al (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences), suggests that dogs experience intrinsic motivation when they complete a task. It’s an important finding because the feel-good factormatters for animal welfare. And it mirrors a trend towards positive psychology in humans which aims to find out what makes people happy.

I asked Dr. McGowan about the implications of the research for ordinary pet owners. She said,
It has long been our impression that our pets have rich emotional lives and that their experiences affect them profoundly in ways similar to how humans are affected. We are now starting to be able to back this up scientifically, which is very exciting.  

Think back to last time you learned a complicated new task... do you remember the excitement you felt when you completed the task correctly? Our work suggests that dogs may also experience this 'Eureka Effect.' In other words, learning itself is rewarding for dogs. 

“Thus, providing your dog with opportunities to solve problems (e.g., cognitive puzzle toys, or a game of hide and seek with treats in your yard) or learn new behaviors can be quite rewarding for your dog. Many pet owners understand the importance of keeping their dogs physically active; our research helps to emphasize the importance of keeping dogs mentally active as well.”
A puppy learns a trick with a keyboard
We’re used to reading about dogs compared to wolves, or to young children, but the idea for this study came from an experiment with cattle. It turns out that cattle are more excited when they solve a problem to earn a reward than if they just get the reward without mastering a task. The aim of the research was to find out if this also applies to dogs.

The study separated the process of earning a reward from the giving of the reward. Dogs took part in matched pairs. There were six pieces of equipment – including a “dog piano” – and each dog was trained on three of them; their partner was trained on the other three.

A handler took the dog into a room with two pieces of equipment, one the dog was trained on and one they didn’t know. The task for the dog was to do what they had been trained to do – push or press something in order to make a noise, after which a door would open to a runway that led to the reward.

At other times, the dog was in the same room with the equipment but operating it made no difference; the door would open only after the exact length of time it had taken their partner to solve the problem.

What the dog had to do
A wooden lever attached to a wheel with spokes that click when it turns
Press the lever to make the spokes click
A paddle lever attached to a bicycle bell
Press the paddle lever to make the bell ring
A stack of three boxes that are fixed in place and a fourth box on the top
Push the top box off so it falls to the floor
A tall plastic obelisk that is weighted
Push it over so it hits the floor
A cardboard tube fixed to the floor with a ball on top
Push the ball off so it falls to the floor
A child’s keyboard
Press a key to make a noise
Each dog learnt 3 of these tasks, while their matched partner learned the other 3.

When dogs were in the experimental condition, they pulled their handler towards the room and wagged their tails. On the other hand, when in the control condition – even though they still got a reward – they became less keen to enter the room and often had to be persuaded. They did not wag their tails as much, and often chewed on the equipment, suggesting frustration.

These results show that dogs enjoyed completing the task to earn the reward more than just getting the reward itself.

Science Borealis Blog Carnival 2014
There are all kinds of ways to give dogs the chance to problem-solve, including rewards-based obedience training (using positive reinforcement), agility, learning tricks, puzzle toys, nose-work, and many other enrichment activities. What is your dog’s favourite?

If you’d like to read more about the experiment, we first covered it here. You can find other stories from the Science Borealis blog carnival on their website or by following #SciBorBlogCarnival on twitter. And if you're not yet following us, please find us on twitter (@CompAnimalPsych) or Facebook.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

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
Photos: Anna Tyurina (top); Vitaly Titov & Maria Sidelnikova (both

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an Etsy affiliate and Marks and Spencer affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Follow me!

Support me