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Does Raising a Dog's Excitement Level Improve Performance?

Generating too much enthusiasm in a dog may be bad for its performance.

wandersome - Creative Content License
Source: wandersome - Creative Content License

"I just can't get him to focus on the exercises so his performance is not very good," said a woman holding a leash connected to an alert and watchful gray Schnauzer. The woman was standing next to a Rally Obedience ring, and obviously waiting for her turn to compete.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Rally Obedience competition, it involves a number of different stations to test the dog and handler. Each station is marked by a sign that requires the execution of a different task. You can think of it as a series of performance problems that need to be solved and executed. The tasks can be simple or complex turns, moving backward or to the side, going over jumps, executing a particular sequence of movements, with the specific items selected from about 65 different possible maneuvers.

The woman with the Schnauzer had been speaking to another woman who stood beside a slightly overweight Goldman Retriever. This dog seemed to be extremely relaxed and unconcerned by the events going on around him. The Golden Retriever's owner replied, "I think that your problem is that you don't get your dog excited enough. You want to get the dog's energy level up and then he will focus a lot better on what he has to do. For Brandon here, before I go into the ring I play with him a little bit." She then demonstrated by having the big yellow dog perform a number of spins, hand touches, a quick down followed by a jump up to grab a treat from her hand. By the time she was done the retriever was obviously much more excited, with his tail waving gaily and his mouth open in what appeared to be a playful smile.

Moments later the retriever and his owner entered the ring and the dog performed smoothly and accurately, thus gaining a respectable qualifying score.

The woman with the Schnauzer was the next competitor and she followed the advice of her acquaintance by spending a minute or so getting her dog excited and bouncing around in a manner that was similar to what she had just observed.

The moment the Schnauzer entered the ring I knew that this trial was not going to go well. The dog was now clearly "wired" and his attention was flipping back and forth between what was going on outside of the ring and his handler. His arousal level seemed high enough so that he now seems to be interpreting every movement that his owner made as if it were a command, whether or not it was intended to be so. In the end, he poorly executed the first turns and when his handler inadvertently swung her right hand out the dog acted as though he was interpreting that is a signal to go out and retrieve something and he dashed to the end of the leash nearly pulling her off of her feet. When she tried to get her dog to back up the three steps required for one station, the dog completely misinterpreted her hand signals, jumping up to try to touch her palm each time she tried to wave him back. By the time she got to station seven or eight it was obvious that this was not going to be a qualifying trial for the dog.

The problem was that the advice that the woman with the Schnauzer had been given was perfectly valid, but not for her dog. Many dog trainers believe that getting a dog "up" (excited and aroused) produces the best performance. However, this can violate a basic psychological principle. What I am talking about is technically called the Yerkes-Dodson Principle. It says that an individual's performance in a moderately difficult task is affected by his arousal or excitement level, but that relationship is in the form of an inverted U-shaped pattern which looks much like the figure below.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

Notice that an individual's performance does improve as arousal goes from low to medium levels. However, the quality of the performance tends to diminish when the excitement level gets higher than that optimal level. So a dog who is too sluggish would not be expected to perform well, while a dog who is too aroused would also be expected to perform badly.

A study by a team of researchers working at Duke University's Canine Cognition Center recognized the importance of this relationship between performance and arousal level but added an extra consideration, namely the dog's personality or temperament. Emily Bray, Evan MacLean, and Brian Hare made a simple observation that different dogs and different dog breeds are more or less excitable. It is a matter of their personality, training, and genetics, meaning that when we consider the effect that increased arousal will have on a particular dog's performance, we have to take into account the fact that different dogs enter situations with different starting levels of arousal. Thus, the woman with the Golden Retriever had a very calm dog and, as you can see from the figure below, such a dog will benefit from increased excitement when it is required to solve a problem or perform a task.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

However, if you increase the excitement level in a dog who is starting out with a higher level of arousal, not only will there be no benefits, but you can expect the dog's performance to actually be significantly worse as you can see from this figure.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd.

To test this hypothesis the research team set up a detour problem, where the dog had to figure out that he needed to walk around a V-shaped transparent barrier in order to get a treat from the experimenter. The experimental setup was quite simple. The dog was brought into a room containing the transparent barrier and was given the chance to familiarize himself with the setup. This included walking the dog around the barrier so that he could see that such an action was a possibility. Following the familiarization, each dog was then tested under a high arousal or a low arousal condition.

Suppose that the dog's name was Lassie. For the low arousal trials, the experimenter would crouch behind the transparent barrier facing the dog, show her the treat, and say in a calm monotone voice "Lassie, look. Lassie, look." The high arousal trials were identical except that rather than speaking in a monotone voice, the experimenter addressed the dog in a high-pitched, excited voice and enthusiastically waved the treat back and forth and made large arm movements. Observations showed that this kind of action was enough to increase the excitement level in the dog as could be verified by things like how quickly her tail waved.

Two different groups of dogs were tested. The first consisted of a group of pet dogs, who, although they might be tuned to human gestures, they have generally received no professional training beyond basic obedience. In addition, such pet dogs have not been subjected to genetic selection focused on their behaviors, other than that which occurs spontaneously in pet populations.

The second group of dogs were all assistance dogs, who had received intensive training and had undergone intentional, highly controlled genetic selection. Because of the work that they are intended to do it is important that these dogs be relatively calm so that they are not aroused and excited by things such as a cat passing in front of them, nor should they be easily distracted by the numerous other possible distractions in the environment.

The experimenters reasoned that the assistance dogs would enter the testing situation with a much lower level of excitement, thus it could be predicted that in the high arousal trials their performance would improve, while the more excitable pet dogs, who are starting with higher activation levels would have their arousal level pushed beyond the optimal point and they would show lower success rates in solving the problem.

Analysis of a number of different measures did, in fact, show that increasing the arousal level of calm dogs resulted in better performance while increasing the arousal level of excitable dogs caused a deterioration in their performance.

The experimenters concluded that their results provide evidence that a dog's personality or temperament, including its excitability and emotional reactivity, do play a role in the dog's ability to solve problems and perform tasks. It's another example of the importance of knowing the nature of your own particular dog. If you have an easy going, low-key dog, then boosting his excitement level before he is asked to work or solve problems makes sense and is helpful. However, if you have an excitable, Tasmanian devil of a dog, skip anything that might raise his arousal level and start working with your dog in as calm and soothing a manner as you can.

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Emily E. Bray, Evan L. MacLean, Brian A. Hare (2015). Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Animal Cognition, 18, 1317-1329. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0901-1