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Why Grumpy Dogs Outperform Friends on Some Learning Tests

Do you have a cranky dog? He might have hidden talents.

In a recent study in Hungary, researchers found that dogs with personality characteristics they grouped under the rubric of “cranky” were better able to learn from a stranger than more easy-going dogs.

This is certainly a limited skill, but owners of cranky dogs can be happy with all kinds of good news.

Consider some of the characteristics that the researchers categorized as cranky: barking quickly, growling or snapping when disturbed, does not come when called, protects food to protect it from other dogs or people, active and agitated . This is the dog that pet shelters say needs a very special owner. This is the dog that very special owners should always explain to their friends. It’s Fluffy’s chair, they say. This is Fluffy’s rug. In fact, this is Fluffy’s house, all of it. Let’s go to a cafe.

Peter Pongracz, whose specialty at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest is the study of dog-human interactions, reported the recent findings in the journal Animals, under a long headline starting with “Grumpy dogs are intelligent learners.”

(A little warning to would-be dog owners: The study says nothing about the crankiest breeds. Scientists have looked at the differences between dogs, all of which are pets.)

Dr Pongracz conducted the experiments because he had noticed in previous research that dominant and submissive dogs in households that had more than one dog exhibited differences in learning styles.

In both studies, the dog’s task remained the same. Dr Pongracz and his colleagues have placed a favorite treat or toy prominently behind a V-shaped metal fence. Instinctively, the dogs try to go straight to the treat, which unfortunately doesn’t work. They had to start by moving away from the treat to go around the fence to approach it. To the mind of the dog, this is a very strange idea. The delightful smelling treat is here. Why would you stay away from it?

“It’s a pretty tough job for a dog when it’s alone,” said Dr Pongracz.

Dogs are social learners, which means they can see what another (dog or person) is doing and then learn to do the same. In previous work, dogs that occupied a dominant position in a multi-dog house were hopeless to learn from watching other dogs, while more submissive dogs may have been trained to keep an eye on what the other dogs were doing, doing very well. But when one person demonstrated the solution, so did all the dogs.

Dr Pongracz decided that in the recent experiment he would examine the relationship between dogs and owners. The owners filled out a questionnaire. And the dogs themselves also did the tests. After performing a statistical analysis of the results, both from the owner survey and from the dog tests, the researchers concluded that a set of dog characteristics ranging from high levels of activity to clicking or growling all belonged to the same category.

Tagging this particular group was difficult, said Dr Pongracz, “because these dogs aren’t exactly aggressive, but they have this cranky attitude.

“Grumpy” is the best fit.

For the recent experiment, the dogs had to retrieve the object placed behind a V-shaped fence. The grumbling and pleasant dogs did the same when they had to solve the problem on their own or if their owners told them to. showed the way to get the treat.

But grumpy dogs fared much better when a stranger showed how to get the item.

“They were more attentive,” said Dr Pongracz. Why is a question that remains to be answered.

Monique Udell, director of the Oregon State University Human-Animal Interaction Lab, which was not involved in the research, said it showed, like a growing body of other work, “that individuality dogs and life experience influence performance and all kinds. stain. “

But, she said, the characteristics lumped into the cranky category seemed to go in two directions.

Dog trainer and researcher Dr Udell said trainers have long recognized that dogs that appear overly energetic and even hyperactive as family pets can excel at tasks such as herding, obedience or the work of guard dogs.

“The reluctance to come back when called” fits this kind of dog, as does less inhibition, she says. The other characteristics listed in the study’s cranky category related to aggression, such as food protection, were inconsistent with his experience.

So she wondered if anything other than grumpiness could underlie all the behavioral tendencies that fell into this category.

Cynthia M. Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, who was not involved in the study, said the latest article lacked details on the story the life of dogs and the nature of training. they had lived. There are “so many variables that go into our relationships,” she says.

Certainly, the variability in the dogs’ personalities and their suitability for different tasks was undeniable, she noted.

At the Working Dog Center, “we allow dogs to choose their careers based on their personality, interactions and relationships,” she said. She pointed out that races are not always a reliable guide to personality, due to individual differences.

Dr Pongracz has four dogs, all of the same breed as the Hungarian Shepherd Dog, Mudi, and each has a distinct personality.

“But all of them bark quite a bit,” he said. “They are loud.”

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