Does training make you smarter? The effects of training on dogs’ performance (Canis familiaris) in a problem solving task

Publishing Authors : Sarah Marshall-Pescini , Paola Valsecchi b, Irena Petak ,
Pier Attilio Accorsi , Emanuela Prato Previde

Date Published : 29/02/2008


This study investigates the influence of training experiences on dogs’ performance in a problem solving task, namely opening a box to obtain
food. One hundred and eighteen dogs allocated to two different groups according to their training experience (no/basic training vs high level
training) were tested. In each group the dogs saw the researcher manipulating either the paw-pad or the lid, prior to being allowed free access to the
apparatus. No effect of the locus of manipulation was observed. However, there was a strong effect of training on the dogs’ performance regardless
of manipulation condition. Compared to untrained dogs, highly trained dogs were more successful in opening the box and spent significantly more
time interacting with the apparatus; whereas untrained dogs spent significantly more time looking back at their owners and the researcher.
These results indicate that high levels of training improve dogs’ problem solving ability, with dogs appearing to be more proactive in the their
interaction with novel objects.
© 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Dog; Problem solving; Training
1. Introduction
Studies on the domestic dog have increased noticeably in the
last 10 years, especially those concerning the dog’s cognitive
abilities and comprehension of human communication (Call et
al., 2003; Collier-Baker et al., 2004; Hare and Tomasello, 2005;
Osthaus et al., 2005; Schwab and Huber, 2006). Dogs have thus
been shown to be highly proficient at following human referential
gestures such as pointing (McKinley and Sambrook, 2000;
Soproni et al., 2002; Brauer et al., 2006) and to learn via observation
both from a human and a canine demonstrator in a number
of situations (Pongracz et al., 2001, 2005; Kubinyi et al., 2003; ´
Topal et al., 2006; Range et al., 2007 ´ ).
However, despite the fact that many pet dogs in everyday life
undergo training programs ranging from basic obedience to participation
in high level competitive activities (agility, working
∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +39 02 50315972; fax: +39 02 50315993.
E-mail address: (S. Marshall-Pescini).
trials, schutzhund, etc.), comparably few studies have investigated
the effect of training on dogs’ lives and behaviour.
A number of studies have looked at the potential relationship
between training experiences and the prevalence of behavioural
problems, with mixed results. On the one hand, Voith et al.
(1992) found no effects of obedience training on the likelihood
of dogs showing problem behaviours and Podberscek and
Serpell (1997) found that the type of training had no significant
effect on their levels of aggression. On the other hand, Bennett
and Rohlf (2007) found a negative correlation between training
engagement and problem behaviours with trained dogs being
more obedient and friendly, less aggressive towards strangers,
family and other dogs and less nervous and prone to excessive
barking. Similarly Kobelt et al. (2003) found a negative
correlation between obeying commands and excessive nervousness
and excitement, whereas both Clark and Boyer (1993)
and Jagoe and Serpell (1996) found a decrease in behavioural
problems following obedience training. Finally, Hiby et al.
(2004), looked at the relationship between training methods and
behavioural problems and found that owners of dogs trained
0376-6357/$ – see front matter © 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
450 S. Marshall-Pescini et al. / Behavioural Processes 78 (2008) 449–454
using punishment based methods or a combination of punishment
and reward reported their dogs exhibiting significantly
more problematic behaviours than owners of dogs trained using a
reward-based method alone. Particularly there was a correlation
between the use of punishment and an increased incidence of
separation-related problems. Furthermore, reward-based methods
of training, but not punishment based methods, positively
correlated with ratings of the dogs’ obedience in a number of
different tasks.
A few studies have looked at factors affecting training success;
for example Fukuzawa et al. (2005) report that non-verbal
cues such as orientation and distance from the dog affect obedience
of verbal commands; Meyer and Ladewig, 2008 showed
that dogs trained once a week learn a given shaping exercise in
significantly fewer training sessions than dogs trained five times
a week and Smith and Davis, 2008 found that clicker-trained
dogs learn an operant conditioning task as fast as a foodonly-reward
group of dogs, however extinction of the learned
behaviour was significantly slower in clicker-trained compared
to the food-only-reward trained dogs.
A topic which has so far received very little attention is the
potential relationship between the training experience on the
one hand and the dogs’ cognitive abilities and comprehension of
human communication on the other. Osthaus et al. (2003) found
that clicker-trained dogs were faster in solving a string pulling
task than non-trained dogs, whereas a recent study conducted by
our own group showed that highly trained dogs are less prone
to follow their owners’ misleading indications in a food choice
task than untrained dogs (Prato Previde et al., 2008).
In the current study, we presented trained vs untrained dogs
with a problem solving task consisting of a food-box which
could be accessed by either pressing a paw-pad or opening
the lid with the muzzle. Before testing, dogs in both groups
saw the researcher manipulate either the paw-pad or the lid,
both to encourage dogs to interact with the apparatus and to
assess whether dogs would preferentially open the box using
the same part manipulated by the experimenter. Given Osthaus
et al. (2003) we hypothesized that, overall, trained dogs would
be more successful in the problem solving task than untrained
The translated version of Hsu and Serpell’s (2003) C-Barq
questionnaire, designed to evaluate a dog’s behaviour in a
number of situations and to highlight the presence of specific
behavioural problems, was also used. A study conducted by
Svartberg (2002) showed that dogs scoring higher on the ‘boldness
trait’ (i.e. high on playfulness, curiosity and lack of fear) in
a standardized behavioural test (the “dog mentality assessment”
DMA) exhibited a better performance in a number of working
trials requiring both obedience training and some degree of independent
problem solving (such as tracking, searching, etc.). In a
subsequent study, the same author (Svartberg, 2005) related the
C-Barq questionnaire to the DMA and suggested that boldness
(a DMA trait previously related to high performance in working
trials) showed a highly negative correlation with non-social fear
and stranger-fear and a more moderate positive correlation with
trainability. Accordingly, we hypothesized that dogs successful
in our problem solving task would score significantly higher in
trainability and lower in the two fear categories of the C-Barq
2. Materials and methods
2.1. Subjects
118 dogs were tested (57 males and 61 females) age
range between 6 months and 10 years (mean age = 3.87 years,
S.D. = 2.62), 78 pure-breed (see Appendix A) and 40 mixedbreed.
Dogs were allocated to two groups according to their training
experience. The Untrained Group included 62 dogs (30 males, 32
females) with either no formal training or having experienced
only a basic training course (typically 10 lessons to learn the
basic commands and how to walk on a loose leash). The Trained
Group included 56 dogs (27 males, 29 females) with either c
S. Marshall-Pescini et al. / Behavioural Processes 78 (2008) 449–454 451
about the dogs (i.e. the dogs’ characteristics, origin, living
conditions, training experience and method) and the second
questionnaire was the translated version of Hsu and Serpell’s
C-BARQ (2003). This questionnaire identifies a total of 11
subcategories, seven of which have been convalidated as diagnostic
categories (stranger-directed aggression; owner-directed
aggression; dog-directed aggression/fear; stranger-directed
fear; non-social fear; separation-related behaviour; attachment/attention
seeking) and the remaining four refer to specific
experiences in the dogs’ life (trainability; chasing; excitability;
touch sensitivity). Of these subcategories we chose to focus on
trainability, and the two fear categories (non-social and strangerfear)
to test our hypothesis.
2.4. Procedure
The testing took place in three different locations (of comparable
sizes i.e. 10 m2), according to the dog owners’ availability.
A relatively bare testing room at the Institute of Psychology of
the University of Milan; an outdoor enclosed testing area at a
dog training school (Bologna) and a similar outdoor testing area
on the University of Parma campus. The chosen areas were all
unfamiliar to the dogs. The behaviour of the dog and its owner
during testing was video-recorded using a wide angle video camera
positioned on a tripod located in one corner of the testing
area (Fig. 2).
Prior to testing the owner was asked to enter the testing area
with their dog who was allowed to freely explore the environment
whilst the experimenter showed the owner the apparatus
to ensure the dog was not already familiar with it, described the
procedure to the owner and gave him/her the two questionnaires
to fill in. In order to be sure that the dogs would be sufficiently
motivated to perform the task, which involved obtaining food,
the owners were requested to not feed their dogs in the 4 h prior to
testing. In addition, the palatability of the food used was always
Fig. 2. The experimental setup.
evaluated by offering the dog a few pieces prior to testing. The
owners were asked to remain seated approximately 30 cm behind
the apparatus (out of sight of their dog when the latter was interacting
with the box). Furthermore, throughout the test owners
were asked to ignore their dogs, even if the latter sought their
Familiarization phase: All dogs saw the researcher drop a
piece of food in the open box and were then verbally encouraged
to take it. This was repeated three times. Dogs who did not take
food from the open box were excluded from the study.
Manipulation phase: In the paw-pad condition dogs saw the
researcher place food in the box and manipulate the paw-pad. In
the lid condition, dogs saw the researcher place a piece of food
in the box and manipulate the lid. If the dog was not looking at
the researcher, she would call its name to gain its attention. In
both conditions, the manipulation lasted 15/20 s.
Test phase: Dogs were allowed to freely move around the
testing area and interact with the apparatus as they wished for
a maximum of 2 min. During this phase the two people present
(researcher and owner) ignored the dog completely.
2.5. Data collection and analysis
The Observer XT software package (Noldus Information
Technology) was used to record the dogs’ behaviour during testing.
An observer blind to the subject’s condition group (trained
vs untrained) recorded the proportion of time spent carrying out
the following behaviours in each trial: (1) Interaction with the
apparatus, i.e. any physical contact with the apparatus including
sniffing; (2) orientation to a person, i.e. orienting the body
and/or head towards either the owner or the researcher; (3) orientation
to the apparatus, i.e. orienting the body and/or head
towards the box, without being physically in contact with it;
(4) other, i.e. all other behaviours which typically consisted in
walking around/exploring/sniffing the room and lying or sitting
down with no particular orientation to either person or apparatus.
The ‘other’ category also included when the dog was out of
sight of the camera. Latency to open the box was also calculated.
Thus, to summarize, for each dog we considered: success/failure
in opening the box; latency to open the box; and the proportion
of time spent carrying out each of the above-mentioned
Chi-square tests were used to evaluate the number of dogs
failing or succeeding in opening the box according group and
condition. The Mann–Whitney test was used for between-group
comparisons. Statistical tests were two-tailed and the α-value
was set at 0.05.
3. Results
Of the 118 dogs tested eight (six females and two males)
were excluded from the analysis because they did not take food
from the open box prior to testing. Interestingly all these subjects
were in the Untrained Group. This left us with 54 dogs in the
Untrained Group and 56 dogs in the Trained Group.
Overall 50 dogs (45%) successfully opened the box with
a mean latency of 65 s (range 1–119 s; S.D. = 42.59); 15 dogs
452 S. Marshall-Pescini et al. / Behavioural Processes 78 (2008) 449–454
Fig. 3. The number of trained vs untrained dogs successfully opening the apparatus
in the paw-pad vs lid condition.
opened the box by pressing the paw-pad, whereas 35 pushed the
lid open with their muzzle.
There was no significant difference in the number of
dogs successfully accessing the apparatus in the paw-pad
vs lid condition (χ2 = 0.59; df = 1; p = 0.44), nor were there
significant differences in the behavioural variables analysed
(Mann–Whitney test n1 = 55, n2 = 55: orientation to apparatus,
z = −0.01, p = 0.99; Interaction with apparatus, z = 0.77,
p = 0.44; otherz = −1.07, p = 0.28; orientation to person: n1 = 27,
n2 = 27, z = 1.34, p = 0.18). Furthermore, considering only dogs
who successfully opened the apparatus there was no significant
difference in the latency to open the apparatus between the pawpad
vs lid condition (Mann–Whitney n1 = 23, n2 = 27:z = −0.78,
p = 0.47) nor in the use of the paw-pad vs lid to open the apparatus
(χ2 = 1.43, df = 1, p = 0.23). In fact the vast majority (70%)
of dogs opening the box simply pushed the lid open with their
noses and were equally distributed between the paw-pad (18
dogs) and lid (18 dogs) condition.
However, regardless of condition, significantly more dogs
in the Trained Group successfully opened the box than in
the Untrained Group (successful Untrained n = 16 vs Trained
n = 34; χ2 = 11.37; p = 0.0007, Fig. 3). Furthermore, trained dogs
spent significantly more time interacting with the apparatus
(Mann–Whitney test: n1 = 56, n2 = 54, z = −3.68, p = 0.0002,
Fig. 4) and significantly less time engaged in ’other’ behaviour
(Mann–Whitney test: n1 = 56, n2 = 54, z = 3.5, p = 0.0005) than
the untrained ones. Untrained dogs however, spent significantly
more time oriented towards a person than trained
dogs (Mann–Whitney test: n1 = 56, n2 = 54, z = 2.22, p = 0.026)
whereas groups did not differ in time spent oriented towards
the apparatus (Mann–Whitney test: n1 = 56, n2 = 54, z = 1.49,
p = 0.17) (Fig. 4).
The two most represented categories in the Trained Group
were: agility (25) and schutzhund (20) trained dogs, thus an analysis
was carried out to evaluate potential differences between
these two groups in their opening success rate. However, no
such difference emerged (χ2 = 0.18, df = 1, p = 0.67). Similarly,
Fig. 4. The percentage of testing time trained vs untrained dogs spent carrying
out each behaviour analysed.
the number of successful dogs in the three locations were comparable
(χ2 = 3.37; df = 5; p = 0.64), as was that between indoor
and outdoor tested dogs (χ2 = 1.9; p = 0.17).
3.1. C-BARQ questionnaire
The completed C-Barq questionnaire was available only for
95 dogs (out of the 110 tested). Of the dogs with a completed
questionnaire, 43 successfully opened the apparatus and 52 did
A Mann–Whitney test was carried out to compare these two
groups on scores obtained in the trainability, fear of stranger
and non-social fear categories of the C-Barq questionnaire. Successful
dogs obtained a significantly higher score in trainability
(Mann–Whitney n1 = 52, n2 = 43: z = −2.54, p = 0.01) and a significantly
lower score in stranger-fear (Mann–Whitney n1 = 52,
n2 = 43: z = 2.11, p = 0.03); no difference emerged in relation to
the non-social fear category (Mann–Whitney n1 = 52, n2 = 43:
z = 1.34, p = 0.18). There was however no significant difference
between trained and untrained dogs on the trainability
(Mann–Whitney n1 = 42, n2 = 53: z = 0.14, p = 0.89), strangerfear
(Mann–Whitney n1 = 42, n2 = 53: z = −0.76, p = 0.45) and
non-social fear (Mann–Whitney n1 = 42, n2 = 53: z = −1.32,
p = 0.18) scores.
4. Discussion
The current study set out to investigate the effects of the
training experience on the dogs’ performance in a problem solving
task. Overall, we found that, regardless of manipulation
condition, trained dogs interacted significantly more with the
apparatus and were more successful in accessing the box than
untrained dogs.
All the trained dogs tested, were (or had been in the
past) involved in training for different activities (e.g. agility,
schutzhund, retriever, search and rescue). However, none of
these activities directly relate to a problem solving task such as
the one presented in the current study. McKinley and Sambrook
(2000) found that dogs trained as working retrievers were
S. Marshall-Pescini et al. / Behavioural Processes 78 (2008) 449–454 453
more successful in following the human pointing gestures than
untrained dogs. However, this is not surprising since following
the handlers’ directional indications is part of retriever training.
In our case, as in Osthaus et al. (2003), there was no direct
relationship between the dogs’ training experience and the task
presented in the study. However, in both cases highly trained
dogs performed significantly better than dogs with only basic
or no training at all. There are a number of factors in the dogs’
training experience which may have resulted in an increased
problem solving capability.
One possibility is that trained dogs acquire a specific ’learning
to learn’ ability that may be largely absent in the average
pet dog population. In the current sample of dogs, the types
of high level training the dogs underwent were very different.
However, all the dogs’ training included positive reinforcement
methods i.e. obtaining either food or a preferred toy when
exhibiting a correct response. Thus, the highly trained dogs
were used to the idea of trying out a number of behaviours
to obtain a reward. This kind of experience may induce a
more proactive type of approach to novel problems, such as
the one presented in our study. In a previous study (Prato
Previde et al., 2008) we found that whereas there was no difference
between trained and untrained dogs when they had to
independently choose between a small and large quantity of
food, highly trained dogs were less inclined than untrained
dogs to follow their owners when the latter tried to convince
them (vocally and by bodily orientation) that the visibly smaller
quantity of food was better than the large quantity. Thus, the
trained dogs were less dependent on their owners and more
confidently solved the task ignoring their misleading information.
Further confirmation of a more proactive/independent
approach by trained dogs is that they interacted with the apparatus
significantly more than pet dogs, whereas the latter looked
back at their owners or the researcher significantly more. A study
by Miklosi et al. (2003) ´ showed that compared to socialized
wolves, dogs were equally successful in two independent problem
solving tasks (i.e. removing a lid from a bin and pulling a
rope to obtain food), although when the tasks were made to
be impossible dogs quickly looked back at humans whereas
socialized wolves did not. In our study pet dogs, being generally
unused to solving problems on their own, may have perceived
the task as “impossible” and thus looked back to their human
companions for further information or help, whereas highly
trained dogs set out to independently investigate the novel object,
quickly discovered the solution and had no need to look back at
humans for help.
A further aspect which needs to be addressed, is the relationship
between training and a dogs’ personality/characteristics
and how this may relate to problem solving abilities. A study
by Fuchs et al. (2005) showed that training at an early/juvenile
stage of the dogs’ development is associated with greater selfconfidence
and nerve stability (as assessed in the standard
German shepherd behavioural test used for breeding approval
in Switzerland). Furthermore, Svartberg (2002) found a positive
relationship between the boldness dimension of the DMA and
success in working trials.
Our study revealed no relationship between levels of training
and the C-Barq factors considered (trainability, stranger-directed
fear, non-social fear) but showed a significant correlation
between trainability and lack of stranger-fear on the one hand
and a better performance in the problem solving task on the
other. Taken together these results suggest that other factors,
aside from being trained, which may be related to the dogs’ personality
may influence the problem solving ability. Svartberg
(2005) showed that trainability positively correlates with playfulness
suggesting that this may be a factor influencing problem
solving success.
Finally, the last 10 years have seen an extraordinary increase
in the number of studies carried out to investigate the dogs’ cognitive
abilities; the current study suggests that it is important to
take into consideration the dogs’ prior training experience when
selecting study subjects, since this variable may significantly
influence results.
This research was supported by funds from PRIN 2006 to
Emanuela Prato-Previde, by a doctoral grant to Sarah MarshallPescini
from the same University and by funds from PRIN 2006
to Paola Valsecchi. We thank Marco Poli for allowing us to carry
out the work in the Institute of Psychology and for his continuous
support, and to Laura Sabbadini, Giulia Pedon and Elisabetta
Ponzo for their invaluable help in data collection. Finally, we
would like to thank all the owners and dogs that participated as
volunteers. This research complies with the current Italian laws
on animal welfare.
Appendix A
Pure-bred dogs included in the study were: 15 German shepherds;
7 Golden Retrievers; 8 Labrador Retrievers; 2 Flatcoat
Retrievers; 1 Cheasapeake Retriever; 4 Terranova; 7 Border Collies;
2 Australian shepherds; 1 Australian cattle dog; 2 Shetland;
4 Beagles; 7 Boxer; 2 Doberman; 3 Argentinian Dogo; 3 Rottweiler;
1 Russian terrier; 1 Carlino; 2 Pincher; 1 Cavalier Kings
Charles Spaniel; 1 Epagnol Breton; 1 Fox terrier; 1 Poodle, 1
Dogue de Bordeuex, 1 Jack Russel terrier.
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