Interactive games: a positive experience for dogs

09.12.2020: Interactive toys for dogs are becoming increasingly popular. Researchers from Vetmeduni Vienna have now investigated what it takes to make dogs perceive interactive games as a positive experience. According to the study, the best way is to gradually introduce dogs to new games and to accompany them in the process of learning – which may even lead to a “flow-like” experience for the animals.

Interactive games have the potential to enhance the well-being of dogs by combining the benefits of rewards with positive cognitive and social stimuli. However, introducing a new game too quickly can lead to low success and frustration. A research team from the Institute of Animal Welfare and Animal Husbandry at Vetmeduni Vienna, led by Christine Arhant (first author) and Jason Yee (last author), examined whether different methods of learning an interactive game elicit different results. The researchers tested their hypothesis using 28 dogs as part of the study.

“Flow-like” experience through gradual introduction to new games?

Christine Arhant explains: “A gradual introduction to an interactive game combined with a demonstration of the possible mechanisms to solve the tasks led to a higher rate of success and a decreased occurrence of stress-related behaviours during play in a new environment with unfamiliar humans. We were also able to observe behaviours which indicate that the dogs experienced positive emotions during the game”. The gradual approach not only facilitated success – characterized by greater likelihood of reward – and limited behavioural signs of arousal, stress or frustration, according to the researchers it also very likely induced positive emotions possibly similar to the flow experience in humans.

“Overall, our findings suggest that the way a moderately difficult game is introduced plays a major role in determining how the experience is perceived. A gradual introduction including demonstration promoted a more enjoyable experience characterized by greater likelihood of reward, less stress-related behaviour, and a physiological profile that may involve activation of both branches of the autonomic nervous system. We suggest that this may be a physiological signature of successful achievement in which skills are balanced against difficulty,” says Jason Yee.

The right amount of human assistance is crucial

To maximize the benefits when using interactive dog games, the researchers stress the importance of finding a balance between the animal’s skills and the demands of the task. This includes the level of difficulty of the interactive game itself and the degree of human demonstration and assistance. Too much help can create an imbalance between skills and challenges and lead to disinterest in the dogs. Overall, using this type of game is an opportunity to combine the benefits of human-dog interaction, food and cognitive enrichment.

Interactive toys increasingly popular

A wide range of interactive toys for dogs are currently available on the market and their use is becoming more and more popular. However, it is crucial to ensure that their use does not negatively affect the dog or its owner/caregiver, for example through frustration and frustration-related or aggressive behaviour. This is especially important in shelters where dogs are exposed to unfamiliar surroundings and a number of other stress factors. Interactive toys must therefore be introduced in a way that ensures learning, success in the task and a positive emotional state, ultimately improving the dog’s welfare.

Interactive toys with the Animal Welfare Label can be found at www.tierschutzkonform.at. 1

The article “Balancing skill against difficulty – behavior, heart rate and heart rate variability of shelter dogs during two different introductions of an interactive game” by Christine Arhant, Bernadette Altrichter, Sandra Lehenbauer, Susanne Waiblinger, Claudia Schmied-Wagner and Jason Yee was published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science.  2