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Inhibitory control affects dogs’ problem-solving performance

10.02.2016: The ability to suppress one’s own impulses appears to affect problem-solving performance in dogs, according to a study by researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the Vetmeduni Vienna. The study, in which 41 Border Collies had to solve a variety of challenges, showed that previous experience with similar tasks did not influence the success rate. Inhibitory control, however, does appear to have an influence. The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

Human infants learn about their physical environment through observation and playful interaction. In previous research, dogs have shown notoriously poor performance in tests on understanding their physical environment. This may be because puppies usually have few opportunities to interact playfully with a variety of objects.  

Therefore, a team led by behavioural scientist Friederike Range from the Messerli Research Institute investigated how the interaction with different types of toys affected problem-solving performance in dogs. The problem-solving tasks gave the animals the possibility to learn about physical contingencies such as gravity.

The dogs spent several months gathering object-related experiences with different toys. Later problem-solving tests revealed that this experience had no positive influence on the performance of the Border Collies. “It appears that the dogs do not transfer knowledge about physical rules from one physical problem-solving task to another. They rather start anew every time,” says Range.

Inhibitory control plays a decisive role

Earlier studies have shown that the ability to control one’s own impulses is a factor affecting problem-solving performance in animals. In order to test whether this was also the case for dogs, the Border Collies were also tested for their inhibitory control involving three separate tasks. In one of these tasks, the dogs were shown a treat that they were only allowed to eat after a given command: the animals had to wait patiently in front of the reward before they could take it. Dogs that were able to suppress their impulse to go for the treat also performed better in one of the subsequent problem-solving tasks. This correlation was not generally valid, however, as dogs that had shown better inhibitory control in a different test performed more poorly in one of the later tasks. The inhibitory control provided no advantage here.

“We know that inhibitory control affects the problem-solving performance of dogs. However, there appear to be different aspects of inhibitory control with positive or negative consequences for the solving of tasks,” Range explains.

The scientific article „Inhibitory Control, but not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance in Pet Dogs“, by Corsin A. Müller, Stefanie Riemer, Zsófia Virányi, Ludwig Huber and Friederike Range was published in the journal PLOS One.