Just recently, researchers have started training dogs to lie motionless in fMRI machines to get an inside view of how their brains really work. These studies have had fascinating results, though they prove what many of us dog lovers have known all along: that dogs have an amazing capacity to learn to complete tasks and understand language.
What we are continuously learning about dogs can help us teach them in ways that they better understand for faster, more efficient training that is also comfortable and enjoyable for the dog.
Dogs Are Perceptive To Words And Tone
The Department of Ethology and MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest conducted a study of dogs as they reacted to different words spoken in different tones.
As they lay still in fMRI machines, researchers spoke to the dogs using familiar praise words like “good boy” and “clever,” and ordinary words, like “however,” and “although,” both in happy tones and in flat tones.
Very similarly to how humans interpret language, dogs used the left hemisphere of their brains to process meanings of words, and the right hemisphere of their brain to detect tone.
It was only when the dogs heard familiar praise words in happy tones, the reward center of the dogs’ brains would light up on the scans.
While this study does not prove that dogs understand complex language, it shows that the ways the human brain interprets words and tone are not unique to our species.
The Takeaway: Use consistent commands and praise words, and use tone to light up your dog’s love for learning.
Associations Make Up For Poor Memory
A Swedish study covering the short-term memory capacities of 25 different animal species. On average, animals can remember specific events for about 20 seconds. A dog’s short-term memory lasts up to two minutes.
This means your dog forgets about training sessions right after they occur. You will need to repeat lessons often to commit new skills to long-term memory.
Keep training sessions short and pleasant to build a positive association. End on a good note and avoid getting frustrated and scolding your dog if they’re not learning quickly. Instead, take a break and try again, staying consistent if she’s making progress, or finding a new, creative way to help her understand a new skill.
The Takeaway: Build positive associations and consistently establish good habits over time to commit lessons to long-term memory.
Rewards Take Many Forms
You can use treats or portions of your dog’s meals to reward her for new skills or for ceasing problem behaviors, for example, coming back when you call her away from chasing squirrels.
However, food rewards are not always immediately available, or effective. Your dog may not respond well to food rewards if she has already eaten, or she may have a medical condition that restricts her diet.
Researchers at Emory University conducted a study to find which reward dogs preferred: praise or food. Once again, dogs were trained to lay still in an fMRI machine as they were shown objects that they were trained to associate with either food or praise. The dogs’ brain scans showed that the anticipation of praise produced greater or equal positive responses than the anticipation of food.
The dogs were then allowed to go through a y-shaped maze – one side with leading to their owner, the other to a food reward. Though responses varied between dogs, many chose to be with their praising owner, rather than the food.
Another study showed that dogs seem to prefer petting over praise, whether they are being caressed by their owner or a stranger.
The Takeaway: Try different types of rewards: petting, praise and food to keep training interesting. Discover what reward your dog likes best.
Building A Foundation For Learning
A strong bond builds the foundation of trust and a willingness to please that makes training more effective and more fun for you and your dog.
Motivation, learning speed and cognitive abilities vary greatly between breeds and individuals. Many studies only include a small number of subjects, usually popular breeds like Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherds.
That’s why it’s so important to count on your observations as your dog learns. Science isn’t just about controlled studies and complex equipment. Science takes place in your own backyard, your living room.
Professional dog trainers and novice dog owners alike are constantly learning new ways to teach dogs. Training dogs is really a two-way street of communication. Spend more time watching, listening and learning, and you’ll go very far in teaching your dog new skills.
When you and your dog learn something new together, it will deepen your bond even more. Keep teaching and keep learning; you’ll be amazed at the possibilities!
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