Duke University study researches dogs’ responses to commands

Pets versus service dogs: “When we were testing them it seemed like they performed differently based on how we were talking to them.”
Pets versus service dogs: “When we were testing them it seemed like they performed differently based on how we were talking to them.” Charlotte Observer file photo

Want your dog to do something?

Match your tone of voice to his personality, a study from the Duke University Canine Cognition Center indicates.

If your pet is the excitable type – a Jack Russell dynamo on four legs – you might try couching your commands in a calm monotone.

Your laid-back Lab, however, could benefit from a little urgency in your voice.

The Duke study, now available online through the journal Animal Cognition, arose when center researchers were talking to people from the Canine Companions for Independence, a service-dog training school in Santa Rosa, Calif.

The two groups had worked together on other dog tests and, “This was something we noticed, this phenomenon,” said the study’s lead author, Emily Bray. “When we were testing them it seemed like they performed differently based on how we were talking to them.”

Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of the Duke cognition center decided to test 76 of the service dogs, all Labs and Lab-golden retriever crosses. The dogs were from almost 2 to almost 3 years old and were in their first, second or third four-month semester of training as assistants to people with disabilities.

They wanted to see what role the dogs’ temperaments played in the way they responded to two types of commands – calm and excited.

To underline the role of temperament even more clearly, they enlarged the field to include 30 volunteer pet dogs from the Raleigh-Durham area. They ranged from a 7-month-old Jack Russell to an 11-year-old vizsla.

What they were looking for was the effect of the temperament/command-voice combination on inhibitory control – a dog’s ability to ignore its own inclinations to focus on a goal. It’s a prized quality in service dogs.

To identify temperaments pre-test, they used video to record the rate of tail wagging. The pets out-wagged the service dogs-to-be by almost 2 to 1.

Then, a researcher standing behind a three-paneled, clear plastic barrier offered each dog a meat jerky treat and sometimes a Kong toy. To get the object – offered in a calm voice in one test and an excited, enthusiastic voice in the other test – the dog had to detour behind the barrier.

The test was performed five times, and, as a rule, the pet dogs outperformed the service dogs when the treat was offered in a calm voice. The service dogs tended to make errors.

But in five tests when the researcher acted excited, the service dogs were energized into efficient performance while some of the pet dogs completely forgot what they knew.

Take Charlie Brown, a 2-year-old female cavalier King Charles spaniel. When an excited Bray called to her and waved the treat enthusiastically, Charlie tried to get to the researcher through the plastic barrier.

When that failed, Charlie went from side to side in front of the barrier, occasionally stopping to sit and stare, but yipping and barking all the while.

Charlie “was so cute,” confessed Bray, who owns a yellow Lab, but Charlie was outdone by her emotions. When addressed in a calm voice during five earlier tests, she’d had no trouble finding the treat. Her retrieval time while aroused – 21 seconds – compared to 2 seconds posted by some other dogs.

That’s a canine example, say the researchers, of the Yerkes-Dobson psychological law at work. It says that too much emotion can hinder performance as much as too little. Think of getting rattled during an interview for a job you really want.

Bray, a Duke undergraduate at the time of the study and now a graduate student in psychology and animal behavior at the University of Pennsylvania, says dog trainers are likely already aware that dogs respond differently when addressed differently.

But, she said, “We worked hard to standardize how we talked to the dogs,” and she hopes the study underscores the importance of matching a training environment to a dog’s temperament.

“It’s a controllable thing, which is kind of nice.”