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Cracking the canine cognitive code of everyday dog behavior

In recent years, cognitive tests for dogs have become a popular tool for measuring canine traits in their everyday behavior. These tests provide a fascinating glimpse into canine intelligence.

However, it has remained unclear whether these cognitive traits are reflected in a dog’s day-to-day activities.

Do dogs who excel in these tests find it easier to live with humans? Are they easier to train?

Dog behavior and cognitive traits

An interesting new study at the University of Helsinki attempts to answer these questions.

The research found that dogs with good self-control and a tendency to seek human help in problem situations exhibit more desirable behaviors in daily life. Conversely, impulsiveness and a strong independent streak can pose challenges for pet owners.

“We found surprisingly many connections between everyday canine behavior and cognitive traits, even after taking into account factors like age, sex, background, and training history,” says Doctoral Researcher Saara Junttila from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

smartDOG test: Window into the canine mind

The study analyzed data from 987 Finnish dogs that had undergone the smartDOG cognitive test battery, developed by Docent of Animal Behavioral Science Katriina Tiira.

This series includes five tests that measure dogs’ ability to read human gestures, impulse control, problem-solving ability, strategy, and logical reasoning.

The results, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, showed direct links between these cognitive traits and everyday behavior in four of the tests.

To understand the behavior of dogs in their daily lives, the researchers sent two validated surveys to the owners of the participating dogs. These surveys gathered detailed information on various aspects of the dogs’ behavior.

“It’s impossible to collect such data relying on research funding alone. Instead, you have to specifically combine commercial tests and research,” notes Tiira.

Dog behavior is a balancing act every day

One of the key tests in the study was the so-called impossible task, designed to measure primary problem-solving strategies.

When faced with a difficult task, dogs might try to solve it on their own, seek human help, or abandon the task altogether.

The study found that dogs that frequently asked humans for help were more obedient and easier to train. These dogs also had fewer behavior issues, such as pulling on the leash, stealing food, running away, and chewing on objects.

The cylinder test, which measures self-control, also showed a strong connection to everyday behavior and obedience. In this test, dogs must retrieve a treat from a transparent cylinder by going to the open end. Dogs that made more mistakes in this test were found to be more impulsive and harder to train.

“It appears that good impulse control could make everyday co-existence with the owner easier, while impulsiveness can make it considerably more difficult,” Junttila explains.

Behavior of working and sporting dogs

Interestingly, traits that may be challenging in a pet dog can be advantageous in working dogs or dogs involved in sports.

For example, impulsiveness can be beneficial in tasks requiring quick reactions and high excitability. Similarly, a dog’s independence can be a valuable trait in scent work, where reliance on human guidance might be less important.

These findings can help dog owners and trainers better understand and manage canine behavior. They can also guide the selection of puppies with traits that suit specific needs or lifestyles.

“In an earlier study, we observed differences between breeds and sexes in different test sections, and these results can together help in choosing a suitable individual puppy,” says Tiira.

Linking cognitive tests to learning speed

The study also explored the connection between cognitive tests and learning speed.

Dogs that performed well in the logical reasoning test were assessed by their owners to be faster learners.

Additionally, dogs that were quick learners in everyday behavior tended to solve spatial problem-solving tasks more efficiently and made fewer mistakes in the cylinder test.

“This is the first test package available to all dog owners in which a connection to the dog’s trainability and also to the rate of learning has been observed. Thanks to the smartDOG test already being available, Finnish dog owners can directly make use of the research findings,” Tiira concludes.

This research dataset of more than 6,000 dogs is continuously growing, and next we will investigate how early these traits can be seen in puppies, as well as their heritability.

Strengthening bonds between humans and dogs

In summary, this unique study conducted by researchers at the University of Helsinki highlights the complex interplay between canine cognitive traits and everyday behavior.

By linking cognitive test results to real-life situations, this research paves the way for a deeper understanding of our furry companions and offers valuable insights for dog owners seeking to strengthen their bonds with their pets.

As we continue to explore the fascinating world of canine cognition, studies like this one bring us closer to unlocking the secrets of the canine mind and creating happier, more harmonious relationships between dogs and their human counterparts.

With the smartDOG test already available and the research dataset continuously growing, the future of canine cognitive research looks brighter than ever, promising exciting discoveries that will benefit both dogs and their owners for generations to come.

The full study was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.


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