New Study Finds Mellow Dogs Perform Better with a Smidge of Stress

Have you ever noticed that being just a little bit nervous can make you perform better and a sports competition or on a test? A fascinating new study from Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center (DCC) find that just the right amount of stress has the same effect on dogs. And like people, that “sweet spot” is influenced by the disposition of the individual dog.

According to a psychology concept called the Yerkes-Dodson law, a little stress can be a good thing, but only up to a point.

For example, the researchers discovered that a little extra stress and stimulation makes hyper dogs crack under pressure but gives mellow dogs an edge. The full findings appear online in the journal Animal Cognition.

In the study, the line between not enough and too much stress is described this way: “A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard to stay engaged and perform at one’s peak. But when the pressure becomes too much to handle, performance is likely to suffer again.

“When you’re taking a test, for example, it helps to be a little bit anxious so you don’t just blow it off,” said study co-author Emily Bray. But if you’re too nervous, even if you study and you really know the material, you aren’t going to perform at your best.”

Researchers first observed this pattern more than a hundred years ago in lab rats, but it has since been demonstrated in chickens, cats, and humans. The Duke team consisted of Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of DCC wanted to find out if the conditions that enable certain animals to do their best also depend on the animal’s underlying temperament.

In a series of experiments, the researchers challenged dogs to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier that was six feet wide by three feet tall. To get it right, the dogs had to resist the impulse to try to take the shortest path to reach the treat (causing them to bump into the plastic barrier) and instead walk around it to one of the open sides.

In one set of trials, an experimenter stood behind the barrier holding the treat and called the dog’s name in a calm, flat voice. In another set of trials, the experimenter enthusiastically waved the treat in the air and used an urgent, excited voice.

The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, ranging in age from an eight-month-old Jack Russell named Enzo to Sienna, an 11-year-old Vizsla. They also tested 76 assistance dogs at Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs for people with disabilities.

The researchers studied video recordings of each dog and estimated their baseline temperament in terms of tail wags per minute. “The service dogs were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction, whereas the pet dogs tended to be more excitable and high-strung,” Bray said.

You can watch the study in action here:


Both groups of dogs were able to solve the puzzle. But the optimal amount of stress and stimulation depended on each dog’s disposition.

For the dogs that were naturally calm and laid back, increasing the level of excitement and urgency boosted their ability to stay on task and get the treat. But for excitable dogs the pattern was reversed. Increasing the level of stimulation only made them take longer.

The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service dog training programs, for example.

This study was funded in part by the AKC Canine Health Foundation, Says Samantha Wright, program manager for CHF: “The AKC Canine Health Foundation is proud to support this important study led by Drs. Evan MacLean and Brian Hare. Their work assessing the mental health and well-being of service dogs to ensure that they are functioning out of positive rather than negative emotion is crucial to identifying dogs that will be happy, healthy, and successful in their jobs.”

CHF’s mission is to advance the health of all dogs and their owners by funding sound scientific research and supporting the dissemination of health information to prevent, treat, and cure canine disease.

The Duke Canine Cognition Center (DCCC) studies dog psychology to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. They also apply their knowledge to improving programs in which dogs are bred and trained to help humans, such as service dogs for the disabled.

The center invites dog owners living in the vicinity of Duke University (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) to volunteer their pet dog to play fun problem solving games where they can win treats. Owners can join hundreds of others by signing up‑your dog may help us gain an even better understanding of our very best friends.