Working dogs serve modern society in a variety of diverse ways — as search and rescue operatives, as guards and protectors, as trackers, and as drovers, just to name a few. We rely on them in these capacities and we have every interest in ensuring that they perform their duties to their full potential. It should therefore come as little surprise that we have looked to modern science with increasing frequency in recent years to help working dogs and their handlers to optimize their performance.
One of the most interesting areas in which scientists have helped develop our understanding of working dogs is in our understanding of their personalities. Though much remains to be discovered, a 2001 study published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science reported that dogs exhibiting behavioral traits indicative of a bold (as opposed to shy) personality were higher performing workers than their more timid counterparts. A Stockholm University research team tracked the performance in various lines of work (including tracking, protection, and delivery) of thousands of German Shepherds and Belgian Tervurens, after classifying the dogs according to their responses to nearly two dozen different behavioral stimuli. Dogs exhibiting bolder behavioral responses — such as intense greeting of strangers, high interest in play, and willingness to approach loud and startling stimuli — were more likely to be higher performing workers. These findings are a bit intuitive — it’s not really a secret that dogs with high play drives are more trainable. But the findings also open the door to some much deeper commentary on the complexity and significance of dog personalities (the author of the 2001 study, Kenth Svartberg, developed this topic further in his fascinating doctoral dissertation, which can be found here).
Science also has had useful things to say about which training methods produce the most effective working dogs. In April 2011, a research team from Texas A&M University published the results of a self-reporting survey of nearly 200 professional search and rescue handlers. Their data indicated that some training methods yielded higher performing search dogs than other commonly-used training methods. Most notably, positive reinforcement methods were generally found to produce higher performing dogs (72% of respondents with a nationally certified dog used positive reinforcement methods) while compulsive methods and equipment were most likely to be employed by successful handlers after dogs had reached maturity.
These findings are somewhat inconsistent with those reported in a 2008 study in which the training methods of Belgian MWD handlers were observed and catalogued. A Franco-Belgian research group studied the training methods of 33 dog handler teams from the Belgian Defence Force, observing that positive reinforcement methods were only used in 57% of cases. The group also noted that aversive methods were employed more commonly by handlers in protection (as opposed to obedience) training scenarios. However, the Franco-Belgian group’s results foreshadowed the Texas A&M findings in that they too found that the highest performing dogs received the greatest number of positive reinforcement stimuli.
Scientific researchers have even dissected the relationships between working dogs and handlers in an effort to identify qualities most likely to contribute to successful training. In a 2006 publication (abstract available here), a team of Belgian scientists reported the results of a survey of over 300 Belgian MWD handlers. Their data indicated that while fewer than half of the surveyed handlers brought their dogs home or practiced a sport (such as non-working obedience training, jogging, or agility) with their dog, those that did invest in their relationships in such fashions reported that their dogs were more obedient in training, less aggressive, more sociable, and exhibited fewer signs of impaired welfare.
So, to recap, if you want to build a high-performing working dog, modern science says that you could do worse than to (1) pick an animal pre-oriented towards bold behavior; (2) train with an emphasis on positive reinforcement methods until at least maturity; and (3) develop a close outside-the-office relationship with your working dog by engaging in play and other social activities.
Check out these interesting studies, stay tuned over the next few days for more on working dogs and their contributions to society, and GO OUTSIDE TO ENJOY THE BEAUTIFUL FALL WEATHER WITH YOUR DOG!