Dogs Problem-Solving Aided by Humans, say researchers

Human encouragement might influence how dogs solve problems, according to a new Oregon State University study.  The study, published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science, sheds light on how people influence animal behavior…


Study overview

Researchers evaluated the behavior of search and rescue dogs and pet dogs when presented with the same problem-solving task.


The search and rescue dogs were provided by Mountain Wave Search and rescue in Portland, Douglas County Search and Rescue in Roseburg, and Benton County Search and Rescue in Corvallis.

Pet dogs were recruited at random from the community through online advertisement and by way of word of mouth. Data from pet dogs from a 2015 study conducted by Udell were also used in the analysis. The dogs in both groups were from a variety of breeds.

Study methods

In the study, the dogs were given a solvable task with a person present: open a puzzle box containing a sausage within two minutes. They compared a group of 28 search and rescue dogs and a group of 31 pet dogs.

Search and rescue dogs were used as a comparison to pet dogs because they are traditionally trained to work independently from their owner…

The dogs were given the puzzle box under two conditions: alone in the room, and with their owner in the room standing neutrally. During the neutral phase, owners were instructed to stand in the room with their arms by their side and to avoid communicating with the dog. In the encouragement condition, the owner was instructed to encourage the dog however they saw appropriate, typically by using verbal praise or gestures, but without touching the dog or the container and without making contact with the dog or the container…

Study findings overview

Both sets of dogs persisted at the task for about the same proportion of time, but the search and rescue dogs were more successful at solving the task when encouraged by their owners.

However, the search and rescue dogs didn’t solve the task when they were alone. Further, pet dogs that solved the task with their owner present — but not encouraging them — also solved it when they were alone.

The [study results] suggest that the behavior of the owner, including their expectation of their dog and how they engage with their dog on a day-to-day basis, may influence the dog during a problem-solving task.

-Lauren Brubaker, doctoral student in OSU’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab




Journal Reference:  Lauren Brubaker, Monique A.R. Udell. The effects of past training, experience, and human behaviour on a dog’s persistence at an independent task. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 2018; 204: 101 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.04.003