An interesting new study called “Grumpy Dogs Are Smart Learners—The Association between Dog–Owner Relationship and Dogs' Performance in a Social Learning Task” revealed some interesting correlations about our canine companions, particularly the grumpy ones!
The researchers of the study had dog owners complete a questionnaire about their dog’s personality traits, such as activeness and irritability. The dogs then completed a social-learning task called the “detour test.” The test involved retrieving a treat from behind a mesh wire fence, which the dog would have to walk around in order to retrieve.
They used a control group who would have to figure out on their own that the only way to get a snack would be to detour around the fence. The next group of dogs had a human experimenter who was unfamiliar to them demonstrate the detour test before completing it themselves. The last group also had a human demonstrator, but this time the demonstrators were their owners.
They found that, although dogs performed better with a human demonstrator, familiarity with the demonstrator did not generally have an effect on social-learning performance.
However, the results did show that individual differences in personalities and relationships with their owners did. The study showed that dogs who had high “irritability” scores on the questionnaire also scored higher on the detour test, and looked back at their owner for help less frequently than the other dogs.
This study showed a few different strong associations like this, for example, “over-active” also looked back at their owners less frequently. However, these results are purely correlational, so more empirical research would need to be done in order to find out why these dogs perform better in social-learning situations.
One possibility for why “grumpy dogs” are quick social learners could be because “highly irritable dogs may be more attentive to human actions, and this could cause them to pay more keen attention to the human demonstrator, thus could learn more effectively from their behavior.”
What it Means for Us
Even without causative data, this kind of research is valuable as it demonstrates just how complex our relationships with our dogs are, and how highly individual each pup is. This kind of data can really help us play to our dogs' strengths and set them up for success!