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The Ragen McGowan Study and Your Service Dog

This summer, a university research team led by Ragen McGowan decided to find out if dogs enjoyed working, or if they only enjoyed the reward/payment for working. The finding? Dogs love to work! Read on to find out what the McGowan study means for you and your Service Dog.

In a nutshell, Ragen McGowan and his team at the University of Agricultural Sciences, located in Sweden, took 12 beagles and split them into 6 teams of 2 dogs. Each dog was an “experimental” dog for half the time, and a “control” dog the other half. Both the experimental and control dogs were placed into the exact same situation: a puzzle toy or problem to be solved was presented to the dog, and at the end, the dog was given a reward. However, the importance between the two groups is important. The experimental dogs had to actually DO something or solve the puzzle to earn their reward, and the control dogs received a reward regardless of what they did.

So, the question became, which group did the dogs prefer to belong to? Hands down, the study found that the dogs in the experimental group, or the group that required the dogs to actually work for their rewards, were significantly happier and more McGowan Research Studyexcited to enter the test area than the control group dogs. Ragen McGowan and team noticed that the control dogs quickly became reluctant to enter the test area and often had to be coaxed by their handlers. The experimental dogs were eager to “go to work,” as it were, and their body language reflected their excitement: wagging tails, perked ears and general enthusiasm.

Dogs in the control group displayed signs of frustration and were quick to leave the testing room once they were allowed. The experimental dogs never displayed the signs of frustration that the control group did (biting and chewing on the equipment). Interestingly, there was no difference between the two groups when the reward was petting from a favorite human, but when the reward was food, the differences became clear quickly.

The researchers noted, “The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward. These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare.” 

What does this mean for your Service Dog? Basically, it reiterates that dogs WANT to work. They want to learn, to perform tasks and to problem solve. However, it’s not good enough to just review the things your partner already knows – it’s the mental stimulation and the satisfaction of completing the task that’s valuable to your dog. Keep your Service Dog’s morale high by always continuing to learn new things and by offering mental challenges so that, in the word of the university scientists, your partner can have a “Eureka moment.”

To read more about this study, check out these links:
Companion Animal Psychology: Do Dogs Get That Eureka Moment?
Companion Animal Psychology: The Companion Animal Science Story of the Year? 

What do you think about this study? What opportunities, if any, do you provide for your Service Dog to problem solve?


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