The Best Way to Train Your Dog? Not What You've Probably Been Told

dog behavior training

Story at-a-glance -

  • The field of canine cognition research sometimes requires scientists with a special gift for getting dogs to do non-dog things voluntarily and happily
  • For example, fMRI scans are used quite a bit in studies of how dogs think, which means the dogs must be carefully selected for their ability to lie completely motionless in the scanner for several minutes while wearing headgear
  • The dogs must also be receptive to positive reinforcement behavior training that doesn’t involve treats
  • The magic happens with a combination of the right canine temperament, social learning and application of the model-rival training method

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

The study of canine cognition is an emergent field of research requiring scientists with a special gift. This is because it’s simply not possible to explain to even the brightest, most compliant dog that he needs to lie perfectly still in a medical scanner while wearing earphones and a radio frequency coil on his adorably furry head. Enter the “dog magician.”

First Step: Gaining the Dogs’ Trust

Not long ago, Washington Post writer Karin Brulliard interviewed the Houdini of hounds who convinced 13 family dogs — 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 (eight minutes).1

The lead trainer/dog wizard is Marta Gacsi, Ph.D., an ethologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. Gacsi is a researcher and co-author of several studies on the canine brain. Most of her 13 subjects were quite young, and some were trained assistance dogs. Assistance dogs usually 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.

According to Gacsi, it’s not really important that the dogs are well-trained, however, a very important prerequisite was that the dogs trusted their owners (and in this case, their trainer).

Participating Dogs Had to Learn to Do Nothing, and Do It Really Well

When Gacsi and her colleagues first embarked on studies involving the use of fMRI scanners with dogs, they assumed they would need highly trained, calm animals, but that didn't turn out to be the case. Some of the trained dogs were perfectly suited for the task, but others were not a good fit because they needed to be doing something. "They wanted to do their best," explained Gacsi, "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 so frustrated they couldn't complete the task. 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 ruined the scan results. As Gacsi explained to the Washington 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."

The Art of Positive Reinforcement Behavior Training Without Treats

Gacsi and her team 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 due to 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." Gacsi 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." The theory of social learning 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 Gacsi. “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 convincing the dogs they wanted to be 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. Gacsi 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 Gacsi.

Within a short time, whenever the researchers opened the door to the scanner room, the dogs all tried to be the first one inside. According to Gacsi, 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 Gacsi. "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. Believe it or not, 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," Gacsi told the Post.

A great take-home message from this interview 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 Gacsi, "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

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