Does your dog get excited at training time? Is he enthusiastic and ready to work, or would he rather lie down and have a snooze? Although it’s difficult to train an unenthusiastic dog, it can be equally tricky to work with a dog that’s bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. In fact, there may be an optimal level of excitement when it comes to a dog’s ability to learn.
The Yerkes-Dodson law predicts that arousal level (or level of excitement) affects problem-solving. For simple tasks, the higher the excitement level, the more successful learning becomes. But with more complex tasks, increased arousal only helps to a certain point, and then excitement becomes a hindrance. The relationship is an inverted U, with problem-solving being best at mid-levels of arousal and worst at the lowest and highest levels. In other words, it’s a little like Goldilocks; brain power is best when excitement levels are just right.
The Yerkes-Dodson law has been shown to be true for several species. But what about dogs? Bray, MacLean, and Hare, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, and the University of Arizona, decided to test the law by comparing two groups of dogs –- pet dogs and assistance dogs-in-training (assistance dogs), such as hearing dogs. The two groups were assumed to have different personalities, with pet dogs being more excitable and assistance dogs more laid back due to their training background and meticulous selection and breeding programs. Because of their personality differences, the pet dogs were expected to make more mistakes due to over-arousal and the assistance dogs due to under-arousal.
Thirty pet dogs and 76 assistance dogs completed the testing. Each dog was placed in front of a V-shaped fence made of transparent shower curtains. The experimenter stood behind the fence holding a treat. After the experimenter showed the dog the treat, he or she then called the dog to “come,” and the dog’s behavior was recorded for the next two minutes. The dog had to realize he couldn’t get the treat by moving straight ahead, but had to travel all the way around the fence. Walking around the curtain took the dog further away from the treat, and previous research has shown that it’s challenging for dogs not to let their excitement get the better of them.
Each dog was given the chance to walk around the curtains before the first of 10 trials began. Half of the trials were considered low-arousal trials, where the experimenter only spoke in a calm, monotone voice. The other half was high-arousal trials, where the experimenter used an enthusiastic, high-pitched voice and moved his or her arms to wave the treat around in an effort to excite the dog. Half the dogs participated in the low-arousal trials first, and the other half completed the high-arousal trials first.
For each trial, the researchers recorded whether the dog took the detour around the curtains, and the time taken to do so. They assumed that the longer it took the dog to complete the task, the more the dog was distracted by the treat. In addition, the number of times the dog wagged his tail was noted as a measure of arousal level.
Both the pet dogs and assistance dogs wagged their tails more during the high-arousal trials than the low-arousal trials, regardless of which one they started with, proving that they found the high-arousal condition more exciting. Notably, prior to the experiment, the assistance dogs wagged their tails more slowly than the pet dogs (fewer wags per minute), supporting the researchers’ assumption that assistance dogs are more laid back.
The results showed the dogs’ success on the task was consistent with the Yerkes-Dodson law. The laid-back assistance dogs became better at the task when they participated in the high-arousal trials. The opposite was true for the pet dogs that were more excited to begin with. Their success dropped when they became more enthusiastic in the high-arousal trials. So, it looks like problem-solving is optimum when excitement levels are neither too high nor too low. The laid-back assistance dogs benefited from a boost in arousal, whereas the already excitable pet dogs did better when they weren’t worked up.
Although this study looked at dogs in groups in terms of personality, it would be interesting to see if the same trend holds true for individual dogs. If so, perhaps you could alter your training techniques to match your dog’s enthusiasm level. A relaxed couch potato could get a little brain boost during training sessions with some high-pitched vocal encouragement. While a dog that is too excited to concentrate could be kept on track with a quieter and calmer approach. When you think about your dog’s learning abilities, don’t forget to think about his mood, too. Managing his excitement level could lead to optimum training.
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