We recently started a new Beginner class at my training school, a course designed for dogs who have had little or no previous training. Generally this class is composed of young dogs less than one year of age and a few older dogs who have been recently adopted from a shelter or rescue group. We host a 90-minute orientation on the first evening for owners only. The orientation introduces students to our training principles, provides guidelines for keeping dogs safe and comfortable in a group setting, and prepares owners for what to expect the following week when they arrive with their dogs.
This preparation is absolutely necessary because unbeknownst to the owners, their dogs will be arriving at class ready to party down. New place, other dogs (who are also excited), lots of great doggy smells, toys, and treats (lots of treats). From a dog’s point of view; definitely a time for celebration.
Knowing that the energy level in the training hall will be tipping the high end of the scale on the first night (and probably on several thereafter), we emphasize to students that the one hour or so that they spend at class each week is primarily for them to learn how to train their dogs and for their dogs to have an evening out for some socialization and fun. We stress that because the dogs will be excited and distracted, they generally learn very little during class time. Rather, dogs will do most of their learning at home during daily training sessions, when they are less excited and stimulated (an emotional state that is often technically referred to as “arousal”).
While trainers who teach group classes are anecdotally aware of the impact that excitability can have on a dog’s ability to learn, it is only recently that the specific effects of arousal on dogs’ cognitive ability has been studied by researchers. This work is highly relevant to trainers because understanding more about the contextual nature of how dogs learn can help us to more effectively structure our classes, inform our clients and train our own dogs.
The Science: The story begins with the concept of “inhibitory control“, a term that refers to an individual’s ability to resist the impulse to do something that may be immediately gratifying but is ultimately harmful or counterproductive. (Though not technically correct, dog trainers often colloquially refer to this as “impulse control”). Examples in dog training abound. A dog who correctly responds to a “leave it” command and turns away from the smelly thing on the ground is demonstrating excellent inhibitory control. So is the dog who maintains her sit/stay while the cat wanders past or waits patiently at the open door prior to going for a walk. While we certainly capitalize on our dog’s ability to use this talent and hone it carefully with training, many exercises that allow our dogs to live with us as well-mannered family members would not be possible if dogs did not possess an innate capacity for inhibitory control when learning new tasks.
Inhibitory control has been studied in many species, including our own. A body of evidence in humans suggests that an individual’s ability to forego instant gratification in lieu of a more nuanced and considered response is relatively stable over time and across contexts. In other words, some people demonstrate high degrees of inhibitory control in many areas of their lives.
Other people, not so much.
The same may be true for dogs. Recent evidence suggests that the type of work that a dog has been selected for can influence the strength of a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control. For example, a successful herding dog has a strong chase drive yet inhibits the final bite portion of predatory drive. Similarly, dogs selected for Service Dog or Search and Rescue work must maintain concentration and continue to work in the face of situations that are highly variable and distracting.
However, personality (temperament) alone does not fully explain a dog’s capacity for inhibitory control.
Not just a personality trait: The expression of inhibitory control can also be influenced by a variety of situational or environmental factors. One of the most important of these is an individual’s current state of emotional arousal (think – the excited beginner dog). The emotional-reactivity hypothesis explains this in terms of arousal’s ability to either support or interfere with learning and performance. It is a bit of a “Three Bears” scenario in which too little arousal is not a good thing (the individual is not interested or is not attending to the task), while neither is too high a state of arousal (the individual is highly distracted and excitable). The “just right” level exists somewhere in the middle – a moderate state of emotional arousal that best supports an individual’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control and learn new tasks.
It appears that a dog’s ability to demonstrate inhibitory control may be influenced by both personality traits (temperament) and the dog’s current state of emotional arousal. This information is certainly not surprising to anyone who trains dogs. However, the interesting part has to do with new research suggesting that emotional arousal can have different effects upon learning in dogs, depending upon a dog’s innate personality.
The Study: Emily Bray and her colleagues at the Duke Canine Cognition Center theorized that dogs selected for different types of work might differ in their natural state of emotional arousal and subsequently how changing their arousal state might either enhance or inhibit learning – as expressed as inhibitory control. Specifically, they noted that Labrador Retrievers who have been selected and bred to work as Service Dogs (assistance dogs) undergo intentional breeding selection for low levels of emotional arousal and high trainability. Conversely, the absence of such selective breeding pressures on pet dogs suggests that, as a group, pets would be more emotionally reactive and thus more innately (and easily) aroused by comparison. Given the inverted U-shaped curve for performance, they predicted that assistance dogs, having a more placid temperament by nature, would demonstrate their best inhibitory control when purposefully aroused (to move them from the left tail of the curve to the right a bit), while pet dogs would benefit from a bit of calming experience to move them from the overly aroused tail on the right side of the curve, toward the left. Put another way; they expected pet dogs to be more prone to errors in inhibitory control due to over-arousal and assistance dogs to be more prone to errors caused by under-arousal.
They tested this in a group of 30 pet dogs and a group of 76 Labrador Retrievers who had been bred as potential assistance dogs by Canine Companions for Independence. A standard fence detour task was used to measure problem-solving ability (performance). This tasks requires that dogs demonstrate inhibitory control because while they can see a dog treat behind the apex of a transparent barrier, solving the problem requires the dog to move away from the treat and walk around the end of the barrier in order to access the reward. Each dog was tested in two states of emotional arousal; low and high. In the low arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog to complete the detour task using a calm and quiet voice. In the high arousal condition, the experimenter encouraged the dog using a high-pitched and excited voice. Dogs’ success and ability to show inhibitory control was measured according to the pathway that they attempted to travel, whether or not they tried to grab the treat directly (through the barrier) and the amount of time that it took the dog to succeed.
Results: Statistically significant differences were found between the pet dogs and the assistance dogs and between low and high emotional arousal states. Here is what the researchers discovered:
- Pet dogs are more excitable: As a group, the pet dogs had a higher baseline level of emotional arousal (excitability) when compared with the assistance dogs. This result was expected and supported the supposition that assistance dogs are selected for emotional stability and calm temperaments while many pet dogs, well, are not.
- Assistance dogs performed best when emotionally aroused: During the detour tasks, the assistance dogs performed significantly better (i.e. exerted more inhibitory control) when they were aroused emotionally by the excited experimenter, compared with when they were calmed by the quiet experimenter. In other words, excitable encouragement and a high-pitched voice improved these dogs’ ability to problem solve and to show inhibitory control.
- Pet dogs performed best when calmed: The exact opposite was true for pet dogs. Pet dogs achieved significantly better detour success scores when encouraged in a calming and monotone voice (low emotional arousal) compared with when they were encouraged to succeed using highly arousing encouragement. Therefore, encouraging pet dogs in a highly excitable manner interfered with learning, reduced inhibitory control, and lessened success.
Take Away for Dog Folks: This information should be of great interest to anyone who trains dogs and in particular to those of us who teach group classes – situations that, by definition, lead to high states of emotional arousal in the majority of dogs. While most trainers intuitively know that a highly aroused (excited) dog does not learn efficiently, these data show us that a specific type of problem-solving, inhibitory control, will be impaired in pet dogs who are over-stimulated. Therefore when training an excited dog to maintain a sit/stay, to “leave it” or to “wait” at the door, we will do best to used a calming voice, quiet demeanor, and to manage the dog’s environment (as much as is possible) to ratchet down emotional arousal.
Similarly, an older, calm dog who perhaps has “seen it all” and is participating in an advanced training class, may benefit from exercises that enhance, rather than suppress, emotional arousal. Hence the adage – Active praise for action exercises.
The bottom line? Knowing where that sweet spot is on the inverted U-curve for an individual dog in a given situation may have as much to do with who that dog is in terms of his natural state of arousal as it does with manipulating the training environment to increase or decrease that state. An appropriately “inhibited” dog, one whose cognitive faculty of inhibitory control is functioning at its best, may be the dog who is moderately but not excessively emotionally aroused.
Cited Study: Bray EE, MacLean EL, Hare BA. Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Animal Cognition 2015; 18:1317-1329.