Why humans struggle with dieting and our dogs might struggle with training…
by Gina Bishopp // August 2018
Depending on who you are, science can be a bit of a buzzword. If you are like me you might see the word science and instantly perk up, keen to hear what new information has been delved into by the expert academics. On the other hand, many people will see the word science and have the opposite reaction to me. I think I can even hear a few of you groan and edge towards your mouse to click away from this post but STOP – science is fun, I promise. And I hope we can convince you that here at the Dog School.
Science is very important in dog training and at the Dog School, we use scientific understanding and scientific process every day to help you to train your dogs, as well as to train our own. What science has taught us over the last ten years has greatly improved the lives of countless dogs across the world as we have moved away from ‘dominance theory’ and punishment based methods. Now we use methods that are designed to build a positive relationship between you and your dog.
Bearing this in mind, something I like to do on a regular basis is scouring the internet for new scientific discoveries within the field of animal behaviour science. It was as I did this recently that I came across a particularly interesting paper exploring ‘delayed gratification’.
Delayed gratification is basically the idea of being patient and ignoring an easily accessible and mildly rewarding item because you know something better will be coming along very soon. For example, holding off from buying a chocolate bar you see in the shop because you know that when you get home you have a giant slice of chocolate fudge cake waiting for you. Humans, in general, are very good at delayed gratification, also known as ‘impulse control’ however I think most of us can agree with how tricky it can be!
I’m thinking of all my failed dieting attempts right now, or every time I told myself I would be eating only one of the chocolates from the chocolate box.
So, back to the research paper, I came across recently… it has now been found that dogs also have the ability to control their impulses and delay gratification, however, some are much better at this than others. In the study, most of the dogs struggled to wait for more than 10s for their higher value reward when offered a low-value item. One dog, however, did wait for an incredible 15 minutes!
This research is really cool because...
1) It is the first time delayed gratification has been studied in dogs.
2) It relates to dog training and why we may not always be successful. I will say the paper did only use 16 dogs, which is quite a small number really, so there is definitely room for further study in this area! But still, the results seen are very interesting!
So how does it relate to training?
Well, have you ever attempted training your dog a new trick or behaviour, even as simple as a sit with duration, but found you can’t quite get there with it. For some reason, your dog just can’t quite grasp the idea. Well, maybe you haven’t quite taken into account the difficulty that is delayed gratification. I.e. waiting for something really good to happen (such as a tasty treat) when something else that is also pretty enjoyable (such as wandering off to have a sniff) is already present is pretty difficult. It is even harder when you are asking your dog to do this in a new place, or where there is lots of stuff going on (such as a pub or a dog park).
It is for this reason in classes we like to labour the point of the 3 D’s! Distance, duration and distraction. You have to build on your dog’s ability to delay gratification by teaching them that patience and impulse control is well rewarded. The science is there to show that patience and impulse control are really tricky for some dogs to grasp. A top tip is when teaching something new or when in a different or busy environment – reward often and reward well, then slowly build on these foundations. Patience and understanding are key to mastering the 3 D’s.
And if after reading this post you take nothing else away, remember that most dogs struggle to wait for 10 seconds to receive a high-value reward when something low value and rewarding is also present. That is unless you have the one incredible dog that can wait 15 minutes! I just wish the study had disclosed the breed of this dog as I have a hunch some genetics may have influenced this dog’s ability…