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This Dog Magician Proves You Don't Need Treats to Train Dogs

well trained dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • If you’ve ever wondered how scientists convince dogs to lie still in MRI scanners, I may have the answer
  • Not only did 13 family dogs learn to lie motionless for eight minutes, but they also did it wearing earphones and radiofrequency coils on their heads
  • The dogs’ training didn’t involve a lot of treats, because they couldn’t have snacks while in the scanner
  • In the end, it’s all about temperament, social learning and something called the model-rival training method

By Dr. Becker

So here's an interesting question. How do you convince 13 family dogs to wear earphones and a radiofrequency coil on their heads, while lying perfectly still for eight long minutes in a medical scanner?

If you've ever wondered how scientists measure canine thought patterns, or more specifically, how in the world they get cooperation from their doggy test subjects, I may have found the answer!

Trust Is a Prerequisite for Training

Recently, writer Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post interviewed the "dog magician" who trained the 13 family pets — six Border Collies, five Golden Retrievers, a German Shepherd and a Chinese Crested — to lie completely motionless in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner for an eternity in dog time.1

The lead trainer is Marta Gacsi, Ph.D., an ethologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. Gasci is a dog researcher and co-author of several studies on the canine brain.

According to Gasci, most of the dogs were quite young, and some were trained assistance dogs. These dogs typically have eager-to-please temperaments, which is helpful for experiments that involve holding still for an extended period. Some of the dogs, however, were trained only to sit and stay.

"It's not really an important thing to be well-trained to be successful in this thing," Gasci explained. However, a very important prerequisite was that the dogs trusted their owners (and in this case, their trainer).

How Do You Teach a Dog to Do Nothing?

When Gasci and her colleagues first embarked on studies involving dogs and fMRI scanners, they assumed they would need highly trained, calm dogs, but that didn't turn out to be true. Some of the trained dogs were perfect for the task, but others were not because they needed to be doing something.

"They wanted to do their best," said Gasci, "but they couldn't understand that here, the task is doing nothing." In addition, the dogs had been trained with treats, but since they couldn't be rewarded immediately while in the scanner, some grew frustrated to the point that they couldn't complete the task.

Not surprisingly, other dogs just couldn't quite catch on to the idea that they had to lie completely still. If they moved around a bit or even licked their lips, it rendered their scan results useless. As Gasci explained to the Post, with certain dogs:

"… [Y]ou can see in their eyes when a drop of water falls on their noses and they know, 'I cannot lick it.' It's really … I don't know what to say. They are not forced.

They are asked. You can't imagine how happy they are at the end. They bounce to the others like, 'Okay, I did it! I did it!' We are really seeing that they are proud."

Training Dogs Without Treats

Gasci and the other researchers faced a challenge finding trainers for the dogs. They didn't want anyone who used punishment-based training, but they also couldn't use positive reinforcement behavior trainers who delivered constant treat rewards, because of the nature of the experiment.

For obvious reasons, you can't offer treats to dogs who are learning to lie completely motionless in a scanner, so an immediate food reward training technique was unworkable. Instead, the team had to base their training on "ethological research." Gasci explains:

"It's rather like you want to persuade your child, your 5-year-old little one, to spend a minute motionless in the scanner.

How would you do it? That was the major thing. It wasn't, how would you train an animal? We shouldn't handle them as infants, but we definitely shouldn't handle them as wolves.

They are dogs, and that's a very special thing. So we use social learning and, of course, we use food rewards as well."

Social learning theory holds that people (or in this case, dogs) learn from one another through observation, imitation and modeling, which requires attention, memory and motivation.2

Social Learning and the Model-Rival Method

The first thing the dogs had to learn was to lie flat on the floor, and then on a table that eventually moved a bit, with their head resting between their front paws. Next, while the dogs lay motionless on the slightly moving table with their head between their paws, the earphones were added.

After that, the researchers tied a cloth loosely around the dogs' heads to give them the sensation of something on the top of their head.

"But it was never fixed," explained Gasci. "That's a very crucial point of the training, that dogs could always at every second leave the position and the place if they wanted to do so."

The biggest training challenge was getting the dogs to be happy in the fMRI scanner room. The room was very noisy, held all kinds of unfamiliar smells and wasn't a place where any dog would feel naturally comfortable.

Gasci describes the difficulty this way, "Try to explain to your grandma why it is good to be in a disco."

This is where social learning came into play. The researchers knew they had to make the scanner room a place where all the dogs wanted to be, so they turned it into a big party atmosphere.

Each dog was placed on the scanner individually and then lavished with praise and physical affection by both the researchers and the dogs' owners.

The "scanner dog" was the center of attention while the other dogs watched but were essentially ignored by the humans in the room. It didn't take long before all the dogs wanted to be the dog on the scanner getting petted and praised. "Everybody wanted to be the focus," says Gasci.

Soon enough, whenever the researchers opened the door to the scanner room, the dogs all tried to be the first one inside. According to Gasci, this is an example of the model-rival training technique in which some dogs acted as models for the other dogs, demonstrating what to do and where to be. At the same time, the model dogs were also the other dogs' rivals, because all the attention was going to them.

"That's a social thing," explains Gasci. "It's not about cheese or treats. It's about being socially involved in the social interaction with the owners. A good dog wants to be part of this."

Did the Dogs Also Learn Delayed Gratification?

The number of sessions it took to train the dogs depended on the dog. The portions of the training that didn't involve the scanner took from five to 20 sessions; training at the scanner took another 10 sessions or so.

At the beginning, the dogs were kept together for motivation, and food rewards were carefully doled out because the researchers had to be mindful that no treats could be given during the scans. That meant eight minutes with no goodies, and the dogs couldn't even anticipate a treat or they'd drool.

Drooling leads to lip licking and swallowing, which results in a useless series of scanned images. So try to imagine this — the dogs had to be trained not to think about food rewards during the scan!

" … [W]e had to explain to them that it's a very long story, and at the end you will have a lot of very good food — but only at the end," Gasci told the Post.

One of my takeaways from Karin Brulliard's interview with Marta Gasci is that it's a good idea to keep social learning techniques in mind when you're training your own dog. It's always about positive reinforcement, of course, but the reward doesn't have to involve treats 100 percent of the time.

"Positive reinforcement can be anything," says Gasci, "like praise and social rewards." In fact, researchers at Emory University looked into the question of whether dogs prefer praise or food, and concluded that most of the dogs in their study either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they seemed to like both equally.3