Waiting for a Treat: Sign of Dog Intelligence

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Your dog’s ability to wait for a treat may predict how well your pet solves problems, and could even reveal at least certain aspects of Fido’s intelligence.

The key skill is inhibitory control, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. A dog or other animal that lets emotion and impatience get in the way of self-control appears to be far less successful in solving problems.

The ability is even inherited, at least in part.

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“It seems safe to say that inhibitory control has a genetic component, but is also subject to environmental influences,” lead author Corsin Müller from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna told Discovery News.

While practice helps, it does not make perfect in dogs.

“I would not expect that every dog can reach the ‘perfect’ level of inhibitory control,” Müller said.

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Studies on young children have come to similar conclusions, but humans have another problem-solving ability. It’s our talent for figuring out the physical rules underlying a challenge, and then applying that knowledge, when needed, to other problems.

For example, a child may figure out that a key opens the front door. When presented with another key, the child could use it to open something else, understanding its function and the relationship between keys and locks. Dogs turn out to be not so good at detecting such underlying physical rules.

The new study looked at how well 40 border collie dogs performed in a variety of tasks observed over a period of 18 months, starting when the dogs were puppies. Just the one breed was analyzed, to avoid behavioral and other variations seen between different types of dogs.

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The dogs in the study were divided into three groups as puppies. One group received a set of toys that offered dogs opportunities to learn about means-to-an-end connections, the effects of gravity and other defined learning objectives. The second group received similar toys, but these toys were not associated with such clear learning objectives. The third and final group grew up with balls, ropes, rubber toys and other basic playthings.

The researchers predicted that the dogs raised with the first set of toys would do better at later physical problem-solving tasks, but this was not the case.

“When it comes to understanding how a particular task can be solved, what dogs learned when solving previous tasks does not seem to help them in solving other tasks with similar underlying physical rules,” Müller explained.

He added, however, that “for one problem-solving task, dogs with better inhibitory control scores indeed performed significantly better than dogs with poorer control scores.”

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The outcome of classic “wait-for-treat” games, where the owner shows the treat to a dog and then makes Fido wait for it (sometimes with the pup doing a trick on command in the meantime), seems to be a better predictor of the dog’s future problem-solving success.

Does this then mean that good inhibitory control in dogs and other animals is tied to intelligence? The researchers leave that as a somewhat open question.

As Müller said, “Concerning intelligence: this is not a term we are using much, because it is a rather vague concept without a clear definition. One could see inhibitory control as a component underlying seemingly intelligent behavior, though.”

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