Yes folks, it’s what we always knew, but now we have proper evidence that playing with your dog makes them clever, in the findings of a great new study out from Lincoln University.
I’m on record as saying that there are no really robust dog behaviour studies, mostly because they lack numbers, and in that respect this one is no different as they only used sixteen dogs – comparing eight in one group to eight in another – but, hey, you try training a hundred dogs in an object discrimination task. It’d take you a lifetime!
With that proviso, this really is not a bad study. The variables are well catered for and the design is solid. There is scope for interference by the humans, but it is fairly minimal (and acknowledged).
It doesn’t quite show what it says on the tin, but the results do confirm that playing with a dog after a learning task enhances long term memory retention significantly more than enforced resting does.
How brilliant is that?! Playing with your dog makes him better at remembering!
Basically they took 16 Labradors and did some pre-learning, introducing the dogs to the experimental design, and then each dog went through the same learning task. The task was to learn to discriminate between a blue basket with white dots filled with woodchips and a green box with black stripes filled with cat litter (differences in colour, shape and smell), by walking up to the right one in the experimental room. They were click-treated for getting it right and told “wrong” when they got it wrong. Each session consisted of ten trials and when the dogs had achieved 8/10 right twice in a row they were deemed to have learned it to the required standard. It took an average of 83 trials for the sixteen dogs to pass.
Now, I don’t think that’s a great result for training in a simple discrimination task and I can only put it down to the boring method – but more of that later.
Then came the intervention. After each session one half of the dogs (8) were taken to a resting area and asked to lie down on a bed for thirty minutes (but not allowed to go to sleep) whilst an assistant talked to the owner to prevent them interacting with their dog. The other half (also 8) were taken to a play area where they had a ten minute walk, then ten minutes of active play (ball, Frisbee or tug) and finally another ten minute walk. All that happened on Day 1, which finished when the dogs had all learned the discrimination to the 8/10 standard, then they went home.
On Day 2 the brilliant thing happened. The experimenters asked the dogs to re-learn the exact same task to the 8/10 standard again. You would expect this to take a few goes but be quicker than the first time, and indeed that was the case. The remarkable thing was in the difference between the “rest” and “play” groups. It took the group that had had the enforced rest after the sessions the day before an average of 43 trials to reach the 8/10 standard on successive sessions. However, the group that had played hit the standard at an average of only 26 trials. Wow. Seriously, 43 and 26, an average of 17 fewer goes.
If you could give your dog a supplement that would improve his memory by 40% with no side adverse effects, would you? Why not? Yes? Well, you can! The supplement is playing with him.
Now at this stage I have to calm down a bit and compose myself before I get carried away. The design of the experiment was such that it would emphasise just such an effect. The training was boring and done in a boring way for a small food reward. When the trainer says, “Go” you walk two metres across the room and choose a box or basket to stand next to. If you get it right, there’s a marker, “Click” and you get a half centimetre cube of sausage. If not, they say “wrong” in a neutral tone, and you start again. Whoopee-doo.
And the “resting”. Is it me or might that be just a little bit punishing? Especially when it is enforced and the dog is not allowed to go to sleep. Can you remember being five and holding your mum’s hand standing outside a shop whilst she talked to a friend she’d met in town. Bo-oring. For half an hour? Aww, mu-um! Yawn. Everything is dampened down.
However, the effect still exists. I guess the % differences will move with changes in experimental design, but pleasant activity after training (not just “playing” because there was walking involved as well) improves long term memory performance. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise as the effect is known in humans too – called “Spaced Learning” when a task such as maths is broken into chunks of ten minutes followed by ten minutes of play each time. And of course the aspect of just being happier doing something you like and enjoy increases learning and motivation, and reduces the frustration of learning. That’s why children have periodic breaks throughout the day where they run about in the playground before going back into class again (not just so the teachers can break out the gin in the staffroom).
The authors postulate that the improvement is due to the increase in adrenaline (which has been shown to improve memory) caused by the activity, combined with the recorded decrease in the stress hormone cortisol (which has also been shown to improve memory) caused by pleasant interaction with a human.
So what does it mean in real terms for training dogs in anything?
If we want to get the best from our dogs’ abilities to remember what we are teaching them, it needs to be done in a pleasant environment that enhances their positive mood. It should involve pleasant activity and pleasant interaction with a valued human. It shouldn’t be punishing and it should be frequently interspersed with bouts of play. The exact numbers (10 minutes, 30 minutes) are less important than your dog’s mood, and probably differ for individuals and on different days. If he looks like he’s getting bored, you’ve been training for too long. Avoid any trainers of the “DO AS YOU ARE TOLD” variety, or trainers who won’t let you play.
On walks, play, teach, learn and play again. Take the stress out of training with frequent bouts of play and your dog will retain what they are learning.
Forget the authoritarian regime. To teach your dog anything, follow it with playtime. And for the trainers amongst you, remember it works for humans too.
Let’s play it again, Ted 🙂
 Nadja Affenzeller, Rupert Palme and Helen Zulch (2016) Playful activity post-learning improves training performance in Labrador Retriever dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), Physiology & Behavior, doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.10.014