Have you ever wondered why particular dogs respond better to commands given by particular people? Part of the explanation might be related to how those commands are being given.
A new study performed at the Duke University Canine Cognition Center shows that excitable dogs respond better to a calm demeanor and calm dogs respond better to an excited demeanor. The researchers compared a group of pet dogs to a group of assistance dogs in training who had been bred and taught to be calmer than average. The scientists confirmed the difference in the arousal level between the two groups by measuring the rate at which the dogs wagged their tails. The pet dogs “out-wagged the service dogs-to-be by almost 2 to 1.”
The study is quite simple and easy to replicate with your own dog at home if you’re interested in doing so. A researcher crouched behind a clear barrier and offered a treat to each dog. To get the treat, the dogs had to resist the impulse to try to go straight through the barrier and instead figure out that their only option was to go around it. Each dog was run through this experiment several times, sometimes hearing an excited voice and sometimes hearing a calm voice telling them to “come” and get the treat. The amount of time it took the dog to get the treat was measured each time.
For an absolutely hysterical look at the effect tone of voice can have, watch this video of Charlie Brown, a 2-year-old female cavalier King Charles spaniel. Poor Charlie. Her “aroused” brain just short-circuited when too much excitement came her way.
The paper’s authors say that something called the Yerkes-Dodson law is at work here. “The law posits that arousal level, a component of temperament, affects problem solving in an inverted U-shaped relationship: Optimal performance is reached at intermediate levels of arousal and impeded by high and low levels.”
In other words, when dogs are already excited, more excitement will make it harder for them to make a good decision. On the other hand, extremely calm dogs might just need a little emotional push to rouse them into caring one way or another.
These results don’t really tell people who have significant experience working with dogs anything they don’t already know, but it’s still helpful when science confirms what you thought was true. The next time you ask your dog to do something, take note of his or her personality and current mood and pick the appropriate tone of voice to maximize the chance that they’ll respond appropriately.
Dr. Jennifer Coates
Increasing arousal enhances inhibitory control in calm but not excitable dogs. Bray EE, MacLean EL, Hare BA. Anim Cogn. 2015 Jul 14.
Duke University study researches dogs’ responses to commands. Hannah Miller. The News & Observer. Accessed 9/15/2015.