Most people are interested in the training and performance of their dogs simply they want to have a well-mannered and biddable canine companion, or for a smaller number of dog owners, so that they can have dogs that perform well in canine sports or obedience competitions. However, for many other individuals dogs are important work mates and how well these canines perform as guards, stock herders, assistance dogs, or military and service dogs can have significant economic and safety implications. While there have been a number of laboratory studies that have looked at how specific training practices and owner behaviors may influence successful training of dogs (you can see an example by clicking here), it is sometimes more enlightening to look at the success or failure of real-world people actually invested in creating successful working dogs because they need them to fulfill a certain job.
A recent study gathered such data and looked at the factors associated with creating successful stock herding dogs in Australia. One must remember that although genetics plays a significant role in determining whether a particular dog has herding instincts, the dog must still undergo significant training to bring it under control and make it a successful herder or drover. For the Australian cattle and sheep industries, herding dogs are extremely important. With an estimated 270,000 stock herding dogs working in rural Australia, these animals represent a significant component of the labor force in the livestock industries. It has been estimated that an average of 25% of working dogs that are recruited for training fail to achieve an adequate level of performance. The cost associated with acquiring, keeping and training an unsuccessful herding dog is rather steep. In Australia, where the dog is likely to be kept and trained for around 12 months prior to its eventual dismissal, the cost has been estimated to be in excess of $1000. Given that when a dog fails to learn the job it was initially selected for it costs a significant amount of money it is obviously important to know which training and keeping practices will guarantee a higher level of success.
This recent study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney in Australia and published in the journal PLoS One*. The study involved a complex survey given to 812 farmers who actually used working stock herding dogs in their livestock business. Data was gathered to assess the performance of 4027 dogs. A lot of different variables were looked at in this piece of research and the statistical treatment might be rather daunting for people who do not have analytical training, so I will simply mention some of the most interesting and significant findings.
For the purposes of this study a rather strict, but realistic, measure was used to determine whether a farmer was training his dogs successfully. Thus the measure of an individual's success rate was the proportion of dogs acquired by the farmer that were trained and eventually employed as working dogs, as opposed to those that were not kept on because they could not master the tasks involved. It was found that 62% of the farmers successfully trained 80% or more of their dogs and kept could successfully use them as workmates. So for the purpose of this discussion we will call the dog owners who fall into this 80% or better group "successful" and those who have lower levels of achievement we will call "below average".
The first question to ask (because it has been a point of controversy among dog trainers) is the effects of positive reward-based training versus negative punishment-based training. [Click here or here to see earlier findings on this issue.] The vast majority of the dog owners in this study used mostly positive rewards in their training. The data suggest that this was a wise choice since such trainers were much more likely to be in the successful dog training group. The harshest and most controversial form of punishment-based training is the electronic shock collar. This present study shows that this is not a very effective training method since the individuals who use this technique were 26% more likely to end up in the below average group of trainers in terms of their success rate.
One finding which surprised me was the influence of exercise on the successful training of the dogs. Dog owners who exercise their dogs at least once daily were twice as likely to end up in the successful dog trainer group rather than those who exercised their dogs twice weekly or less.
One interesting thing that these researchers did was to include a personality test to determine the owner's behavioral characteristics. There have been other studies that have suggested that the owner's nature and predisposition can affect a dog's learning and personality (click here for an example). This current study confirms the fact that an owner's temperament and personality have an important influence on the dog's successful completion of a training program. The most significant finding here has to do with the personality characteristic called "conscientiousness". Conscientiousness refers to a tendency to show self-discipline and a preference for planned rather than spontaneous behavior. A person who is high in conscientiousness is apt to agree with statements like "I am always prepared", "I pay attention to details", "I like order", and "I follow a schedule". It is easy to predict from this that individuals high in conscientiousness will follow a much more predictable and regular routine then those who are low on this personality trait. For dogs this seems to be a good thing since the dog owners who score highest in conscientiousness were found to be 74% more likely to be in the successful group of dog trainers I when compared to the dog owners who score lowest in conscientiousness.
So, in this real-world sample of people trying to train dogs for specific working tasks we once again find that training methods (rewards versus punishment) are significant factors as are the owner's behavioral characteristics. Perhaps the most surprising finding to me is the fact that a well exercised a dog seems to be more trainable and more successful as a working canine when compared to those who do not have much of an opportunity to exercise.
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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* Data from: Arnott ER, Early JB, Wade CM, McGreevy PD (2014) Environmental Factors Associated with Success Rates of Australian Stock Herding Dogs. PLoS ONE 9(8): e104457. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0104457