Science is making it clearer that when you train a dog you do more than teach him a skill. We now know that training may also change your pet's brain and subtly alter his thinking processes. This fact was brought to mind when I was approached by a woman that I knew who was bubbling over with enthusiasm as she told me that her dog had just successfully earned his CDX (Companion Dog Excellent) obedience title. This was a particularly praiseworthy event since her dog is a West Highland White Terrier (which is a breed that is not particularly noted for its high level obedience performance), and the CDX is an advanced degree requiring good off leash control as well as retrieving and jumping. This particular afternoon she had a psychological question to ask me, "Do you know whether training a dog makes him smarter and more trainable? You know it took me two and a half years to train Angus for the CD [Companion Dog] degree but it took less than a year to train him for the CDX, even though the exercises are a lot harder."
The answer to her question has been becoming a bit clearer in recent years. We certainly know that training methods can affect more than just the dogs learned skills. Whether the trainer uses positive versus force based training procedures can affect the dogs personality and emotional behaviors. Training methods can alter the amount of stress that the dog apparently feels (click here to see more) and the amount of aggression that the dog is apt to display (click here to see more). However the issue of whether training actually affects the intelligence of dogs is another matter. As luck would have it we actually do have some relatively recent data on this issue.
Sarah Marshall-Pescini of the Psychology Department at the University of Milan led a team of researchers which studied this question, and their data was published in the journal Behavioural Processes*. They started out with two groups of dogs. One group of 54 dogs was designated as the "Untrained Group" because the dogs in it had either had no formal obedience training or only a basic training course (typically 10 lessons to learn the basic commands and how to walk on a loose leash). Another group was designated as the "Trained Group" and it consisted of 56 dogs with either current or past participation in high level training including agility training, schutzhund training, search and rescue on land and water, retriever working trial training, or musical freestyle performance training. Some dogs were trained in more than one activity.
Now one of the cautions that researchers doing this kind of work had to be aware of involves choosing a task which is totally unfamiliar to all of the dogs (and especially something that the trained dogs never had encountered before). So the task that was chosen involved a piece of apparatus which is basically a box that food can be placed in. The lid of the box had to be opened to get at the food treats. This could be done by either pressing on a paw-pad attached to the box or by the dog poking the lid with his nose. It was reasoned that since this task was a novel one, regardless of the dogs' prior training in other things, it would provide some measure of intelligence, or at least problem-solving.
The testing procedure was quite straightforward. An experimenter placed some food in the apparatus and encouraged the dog to take it. This was done in so that the dogs knew that the food was there and they were allowed to take it. Next the box was closed, the experimenter made sure that the dog was watching, and then demonstrated how the box could be opened by either pressing on the paw-pad or by manipulating the lid. This whole process took 15 to 20 seconds. In the test phase dogs were allowed to freely move around the testing area and interact with the apparatus as they wished for a maximum of 2 minutes. During this time they were ignored by the experimenter and their owner.
The results were quite unambiguous. In the group of untrained dogs only 30% solved the problem and successfully got at the food during the test period. However for the group of trained dogs more than twice that number (61%) were successful. Furthermore it became quite clear that the trained dogs were more focused on the problem at hand. They spent more time working at the apparatus and less time looking at their owner or the experimenter. This means that even though the training that the dogs had experienced had nothing to do with this new test task it appears that simply having a lot of training in other areas makes the dogs better problem solvers.
The experimenters summarize the results by saying, "One possibility is that trained dogs acquire a specific 'learning to learn' ability that may be largely absent in the average pet dog population." They explain what they mean by this by going on to say "Thus, the highly trained dogs were used to the idea of trying out a number of behaviours to obtain a reward. This kind of experience may induce a more proactive type of approach to novel problems, such as the one presented in our study." In other words, perhaps the trained dogs are not smarter per se because of their prior training, but rather they have learned that in a variety of different situations they are being presented with a problem that has a solution, and if they find that solution they will get a reward. Thus the trained dogs learn to focus on the problem itself and to keep on trying because of those are the behaviors that are most likely to be successful.
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: Sarah Marshall-Pescini,, Paola Valsecchi, Irena Petak, Pier Attilio Accorsi, Emanuela Prato Previde (2008). Does training make you smarter? The effects of training on dogs' performance (Canis familiaris) in a problem-solving task. Behaviourial Processes, 78, 449-454.