For decades, dog trainers have emphasized the importance of playfully training puppies before taking training classes. While this practice has not failed us, new research suggests that we may have had it backwards. Behavioral problems await owners of overly tied dogs as we expect the Covid-19 restrictions to be relaxed so that a new perspective on improving the effectiveness of training techniques could not be more current.
Recently, Dr. Nadja Affenzeller on the results of a follow-up study to her 2017 study: “Playful activities after learning improve training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).” In this study, working with a group of Labrador Retrievers showed that post-exercise play improved retention for 24 hours (study reported for The Bark by Karen London, PhD). Their new research, which appears not only to confirm the results so far but also to extend them to a year, has the potential to turn dog training as we know it on its head.
One component of the current approach to dog training is the “pre-training game” model, where dog owners are advised to play with their puppies – tug of war, fetching, chasing games before attending a training course. The idea is to relieve the dog’s energy so that he can better focus on the class.
A calm demeanor makes it much easier for the dog owner to participate in the training. Instead of spending time forcing a fearful puppy to cooperate, the owner can keep the dog’s attention and blow it through the class like a pro.
But wait! If this practice works, what could possibly upset it? It turns out we may have been doing things backwards.
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According to Dr. Affenzeller dogs may have a better chance of sticking to the tasks learned during training if their owners play with them after the class is over. This retention is facilitated by the release of adrenaline and the activation of certain parts of the dog’s sympathetic nervous system due to the excitement of playtime. Together, signals triggered in nerve cells and in the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for a puppy’s emotions as well as some memory) seem to boost the dog’s long-term memory for up to a year.
To demonstrate this phenomenon, Dr. Affenzeller a small group of 11 Labrador Retrievers aged three to ten years in a “discrimination task”. To do this, the dog had to choose between two different objects: a blue basket full of wood chips and a green box with cat litter.
Take two of the adorable test subjects, Max and Poppy, for example. For the previous study, they had been trained to identify the basket filled with blue wood chips from among other objects presented to them. On the command “Go”, Max and Poppy had to place two paws near the selected item in at least 16 out of 20 attempts to be considered successful.
There was a catch, however. Max and Poppy along with the other nine dogs had different experiences after their previous training sessions. While Max relaxed on a dog bed while his human chatted after class, Poppy was taken for a walk and given the opportunity to do one of the following activities with her owner:
• Get a ball
• Hunting a Frisbee
• Play tug of war
When they were tested on the same objects a year later, Poppy’s group known as “Playgroup” blew Max’s “rest group” out of the water. It only took the playful pups an average of 23 tries to refresh their memories in identifying their assigned objects. On the other hand, it took the resting dogs an average of 50 attempts to reach the same milestone. When Dr. Affenzeller analyzed the data further, she found that Poppy and the rest of the playful dogs also made significantly fewer mistakes in the second year test than Max and his relaxed friends.
Since there were so few dogs in this study, it can only be viewed as an indicator of what may be a brand new approach to dog training. Still, the question remains: How important is this for dog ownership as it is today?
The importance of behavior training in human-dog relationships
Acceptable behavior remains a major factor in people’s satisfaction with their canine companions. As well as being a matter of simple happiness in a particular household, this is an element that has a significant impact on a dog’s quality of life. The results of a study published in 2008 showed the extent to which training can affect a dog’s life, especially those who find themselves on the sometimes difficult journey of finding their home forever.
Examining a sample of 5,750 dogs enrolled by the UK Dogs Trust found that “behavior problems” were the leading cause of pet shelters, accounting for 58.6 percent of yields. Of the 2,185 returned puppies, this resulted in a profound life disorder for approximately 1,280 – a devastating number for something so avoidable.
The possibility of throwing themselves in to a shelter isn’t the only risk for dogs that are not given adequate behavioral training. These puppies are also prone to inappropriately abandoned or even euthanized when their owners decide they have had enough. (More than 10 percent of dogs in the UK were returned, abandoned, or euthanized as a direct result of owner dissatisfaction with the behavior. Of those returned, 40 percent were eventually euthanized after living in the shelter for an extended period of time.)
Another study from 2018 found a similar problematic association between the satisfaction of Dutch dog owners and unruly pets. After interviewing 977 participants, the researchers found that disobedience and aggression were among the top behavior problems encountered by dog owners. Both had significant negative correlations with owner satisfaction. Fortunately, most respondents (89 percent) said they solved these problems by eating and playing while exercising (57 percent of those taking the training course were those who used the games on their own).
Formal enrollment in a training course is not necessarily indicative of greater owner satisfaction. However, this study has shown that the chances of improving both dog behavior and owner happiness increase dramatically when owners are better able to train their dogs with appropriate aids (i.e. play and food).
According to a Vet Street poll, most people exercise their dogs to some degree, either for work (46.7 percent) or alone (45.5 percent). Those who attend formal training courses often participate in multi-course programs (47.5 percent). Another 30 percent of dog owners extend their training for several weeks in order to obtain official certification.
Given the widespread propensity for dog training and the importance of this practice to the quality of life for both dogs and humans, Dr. Affenzeller will lead to dramatic improvements in the success of dog training in the years to come.
If owners can use such a simple training tool to gain a greater degree of freedom of choice about the quality and effectiveness of training, there may be a gradual decline in the number of service dogs being handed over. As owners prepare for the inevitable return to work after the Covid-19 restrictions are safely lifted, they may face a bill as they attempt to restore boundaries with overly tied dogs. Effective behavior training is becoming more important than ever to ensure that dogs and their human companions are able to maintain a positive quality of life in the short and long term.