Cognition in Working Dogs

02 Jan Cognition in Working Dogs

In the way, way, waaay back, dogs worked as our hunting buddies. We caught food together, shared what we got, and loved each other for it. Nowadays, since we grab wallets and credit cards instead of bows and arrows whenever we’re in the mood to grill up a opossum or whatever, the dog’s oldest job has been outsourced. But instead of just laying them off and being done with it, we’ve created entirely new, vast industries of work for them to do.

With these new jobs come new requirements, and…yeah, they’re tough. Working dogs are bred specifically for the jobs they do, and even then there’s only a 50% graduation rate. Training them is a long and expensive process, and the returns are low when half the dogs wash out. This makes the industries they’re apart of suffer. Because of this, experts are turning to new ways to predict how well a dog will do in training.

Typically, trainers look at a dog’s physical capabilities as well as their temperment. A dog being trained for search and rescue needs to have the stamina and strength to actually do the searching and rescuing. And a dog in training to become a K-9 has to have the temperament that allows it to go from chasing and tackling perps one minute to moving back and obediently letting its handler take charge the next.

Recently though, researchers are looking at a third aspect that has often been overlooked; cognition. Evan Maclean is the director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, and he wrote a study that looks into  the cognition of working-dogs-in-training, and sees if it’s possible to predict their success rate based on it.

“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” MacLean says. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”

Maclean’s study looked at assistance dogs and bomb disposal dogs. Both of these positions have very important roles for the canines; the disabled human the assistance dog comes to live with is going to depend on that dog a lot. If the dog isn’t adequately trained or suitable for the work, then they’ll need to be replaced and that can hurt, especially if the disabled person is a child. And bomb disposal dogs…yeah, enough said there. Lots of lives are potentially on the line with that.

For assistance dogs, the study found that dogs with better social skills had higher success rates. Social skills included making eye contact with humans and paying close attention to them, basically being better at reading human emotions and voices. With bomb disposal, good cognitive traits were short term memory and sensitivity to human body language.

386 dogs participated in Maclean’s study. Assistance Dogs were supplied by the Canine Companions for Independence, and bomb disposal dogs were from the US Navy. It lasted 18 months, and for the assistance dogs, the researchers were able to predict the top 25% of graduates with 86% accuracy. The navy dogs were harder to gauge, since there isn’t a clear “ok this dog is trained now” moment for them.

The study put forward the possibility that cognition could have its place alongside physical characteristics and temperament. And better cognitive research for dogs in training would mean a more efficient, cost-effective process. In fact, Maclean’s team is looking into doing cognitive tests can be applied to the dogs when they’re only puppies.

And who wouldn’t want that job? You get to work with puppies.

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