Volume 19: pp. 15-19

Beyond “Far” Transfer and “Happy” Therapy Dogs: Comparative Psychology Gets the Facts Right

Zachary A. Silver

Department of Psychology, Occidental College

Ellen E. Furlong

Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, Transylvania University

Rebecca A. Singer

Department of Psychology, Georgetown College

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Comparative researchers seek to understand nonhuman minds but must also consider how our research supports animal welfare. We propose two distinct pathways to accomplish this: (a) correcting misconceptions about dog training by making our work accessible to the general public and (b) developing new research questions directly exploring the impacts of engagement in animal-assisted intervention programs on canine welfare.

Keywordscanine cognition, animal welfare, scientific communication, animal-assisted intervention

Author Note Zachary A. Silver, Occidental College, 1600 Campus Road, Los Angeles, CA 90041.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Zachary A. Silver at zsilver@oxy.edu

The number of people who live with pet dogs has increased: In 2016, slightly more than one-third of U.S. households owned a dog and by 2021 that proportion had jumped to nearly half (American Veterinary Medical Association, 2022). With the increase in dog ownership has come greater demand for advice from dog trainers (Research and Markets, 2021), veterinarians (Salois & Golab, 2021), and other canine professionals. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and not have training, education, or certification (Association of Professional Dog Trainers, 2023; Gibeault, 2020). Celebrity dog trainers (e.g., Cesar Milan) and influencers on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have had an influx of clients and followers. However, these personalities, along with many other dog trainers, often support outdated tactics (e.g., alpha theory) or base their advice on intuition and anecdote rather than on scientifically backed best practice.

Faced with widespread availability of misinformation about dogs, the average dog owner may not have the knowledge or skills to sort the wheat from the chaff. We comparative psychologists, however, are well positioned to do exactly this. We are uniquely qualified to use existing theory and research to evaluate these claims and to conduct new research where needed. Not only can we make these contributions, we should: We have benefitted from the animals’ contributions to our field, and it is our turn to benefit them.

In this article, we use two examples to explore the ways in which intuitions about animal welfare and ways to improve behavior can be tested using evidence from comparative psychology. In the first case, we provide a scientific challenge to a piece of dog trainer wisdom; our critique relates to preexisting literature in our field. In the second case, we propose exploring an understudied research area ripe for contributions. By correcting misconceptions and targeting research to understudied areas, our work can promote more informed practices in animal welfare.

A quick Google search shows that dog trainers and even professional breed and training organizations such as the American Kennel Club (Gibeault, 2020) make dramatic claims about the role of self-control in dog behavior. Dog trainer Acme Canine (2021) claims that “no matter what your dog’s problem behavior is, be it jumping, peeing inappropriately, aggression, pulling on the leash, whatever … one solution that can help STOP this problem [is to] exercise self-control” (paras. 1–4). Even the generally staid American Kennel Club (Gibeault, 2020) makes some dramatic claims, suggesting that “many annoying dog behaviors are related to poor self-control” (Learn the Benefits section, para. 1), going so far as to suggest that “if you teach your dog self-control, they will be more pleasant to live with” (Learn the Benefits section, para. 3) and “rather than feeling frustrated by their need for instant gratification, they will feel calmer and more in control of their environment” (Learn the Benefits section, para. 3).

Given the supposed importance of self-control in dog behavior, how do these trainers and organizations suggest improving it in dogs? They do this through training behaviors such as wait, leave it, settle, and off (Acme Canine, 2021; Gibeault, 2020; Kaough, 2022; The Naked Dog Training, 2021; Richmond, 2006). Trainers claim that through training these behaviors, self-control grows like a muscle, allowing dogs to generalize their self-control to make better decisions when later faced with new arousing events and contexts.

We comparative psychologists recognize these as the following empirical claims: (a) lack of self-control explains “problem” behaviors in dogs; (b) teaching dogs to exercise self-control can remediate these problems and lead to greater owner satisfaction with their dog; (c) dogs who exercise self-control feel less frustration and more in control of their environments; (d) learning cues such as sit, wait, leave it, and settle will help dogs make less impulsive decisions in their day-to-day lives. However, though the claims are testable, no evidence is offered to support them.

For demonstration purposes, let’s take this last claim as a clear example of how comparative psychology can benefit conversations surrounding dog training—the claim that self-control can generalize from taught cues (e.g., sit, wait) to new circumstances that vary across time and context (not jumping on a visitor, counter surfing, or dashing out an open door). Many of us may become immediately skeptical: The research on generalization and transfer casts doubt on this claim. This kind of learning, in which participants learn about a concept in one context and apply it to a superficially dissimilar situation in a new context and, perhaps, at a great distance in time, is known as “far” transfer and is notoriously difficult to elicit even in humans (Barnett & Ceci, 2002; Chen & Klahr, 2008; Gick & Holyoak, 1980, 1983; Lave, 1988; Thompson & Opfer, 2008).

Far transfer of this sort may be elicited, for example, when interventions tap into the representations underlying the error (Thompson & Opfer, 2008), or when structural similarity between the learning and transfer contexts is highlighted (e.g., Gentner, 1984), but far transfer is not an easy process, requiring fairly deep processing to be effective.

Dogs have difficulty even with the easier “near” transfer, which involves superficially and structurally similar problems. For example, dogs have difficulty generalizing from following a spoken cue to following a tape-recorded one (Fukuzawa et al., 2005). Further, comparative researchers have found that generalization of scents presents a formidable challenge to the training of detection dogs (Moser et al., 2019). Similarly, generalization in word learning proves challenging even for highly accomplished dogs with large repositories of verbal knowledge (van der Zee et al., 2012).

A further, perhaps even stronger, challenge to this perspective comes from a review of recent empirical evidence in the domain of canine inhibitory control. This study suggests that self-control abilities themselves might be extremely context specific, and not as generalizable as the current perspectives on dog training might suggest. Bray and colleagues (2014) used a test battery consisting of three tasks designed to test canine inhibitory control in various contexts. The classic A-not-B task tested dogs’ ability to inhibit the response of searching for food in a location for which they had previously found food, a cylinder task tested dogs’ ability to successfully detour around a transparent barrier to acquire a food reward, and a social self-control test explored dogs’ ability to avoid approaching a “stingy” experimenter who offered but then withheld a food reward. Notably, the researchers did not observe a significant correlation of dogs’ performance across these three inhibitory control tasks (Bray et al., 2014).

Brucks and colleagues (2017) extended these findings by testing dogs on a battery of five additional inhibitory control tasks: a test of dogs’ ability to avoid a transparent barrier (similar to the cylinder task reported by Bray et al., 2014), a task that tested dogs’ ability to acquire food from two transparent cups while avoiding a third (nonbaited) cup positioned between the two baited cups, a task that required dogs to move away from a food reward to access a button that opened a box containing the reward, a classic delay of gratification test, and a reversal learning task. Similarly, dogs’ performance on any given task within this battery did not predict their performance on other tasks in the battery (Brucks et al., 2017). This evidence supports the claim that canine inhibitory control is context specific and likely does not generalize across domains. Yet despite strong empirical evidence suggesting otherwise, a widespread belief that a dog’s inhibitory control can be trained in one context and generalized across contexts still remains.

But comparative psychologists can provide important insight into human–dog interactions in other ways. For example, more “wisdom” is in the ether to suggest that pets are good for humans. The past 2 decades have shown an explosion of animals used in therapeutic activities (Neiforth et al., 2022). Animal assisted services (AAS) are “mediated, guided or facilitator-led practices, programs and human services that incorporate specially qualified animals into therapeutic, educational, supportive and/or ameliorative process aimed at enhancing the well-being of humans while ensuring the welfare of the animals involved in these practices” (Binder et al., 2024). Studies of AAS effectiveness (e.g., Nimer & Lundahl, 2007) primarily focus on improvements in social skills for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, medical outcomes (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), emotional well-being (e.g., anxiety), and observable behaviors (e.g., compliance with rules). However, the research thus far has not provided any conclusive evidence that the use of animals as part of an intervention is effective. Rather, studies often present contradictory conclusions. Lack of conclusive results are likely due to small sample sizes, lack of controlled experiments or control groups, heterogeneity of samples, and lack of rigorous methodology (Feng et al., 2021).

It is important to acknowledge the lack of research investigating the welfare of the animals used in these therapy settings. The animal have many potential stressors, including absence of access to food and water during a session, high temperatures at nursing homes, and a lack of limits on the duration of therapy sessions (Hatch, 2007). Much like the research on AAS effectiveness in general, there is disagreement on outcomes of these activities on the animals themselves. For example, some studies of therapy dogs show no differences in salivary cortisol levels before, during, and after a therapy session, but other studies show salivary cortisol levels rising during therapy sessions. Still another finding indicated that salivary cortisol decreased when dogs were engaged in therapy sessions, concluding that the dogs were enjoying the session. Even in studies where salivary cortisol did not increase, there was often observation of stress-related behaviors in dogs (Glenk & Foltin, 2021).

Often, reports of how dogs are reacting come from trainers and owners, but do we know whether they are accurately interpreting stress or calming cues of their dogs? One study found that individuals with higher educational levels were found to be more accurate in their interpretation of stress behaviors in their dogs (Glenk, 2017). Further, it cannot be enough to make sure therapy animals are not suffering. We should be asking questions about whether there are benefits to the animals by engaging in these activities. Can we create better guidelines on the basis of empirical evidence to make sure not only that we eliminate potential negative impacts of participation but that participation is enjoyable and contributes to the welfare of the animals? We posit that comparative psychologists are uniquely qualified to conduct research to answer these questions of animal welfare.

The future of comparative cognition must involve direct attempts to use our research to increase the well-being of the animals that we study. Particularly in the field of canine cognition, comparative researchers can seek to support dog welfare through two distinct pathways. Researchers may consider developing research questions that enhance our understanding of animal welfare. Particularly, the recent interest in the benefits of AAS programs for human participants creates both an opportunity and a need to better understand how these practices impact the dogs involved in such programs. More generally, new lines of research that explore how various interactions with humans impact dogs’ welfare are needed to ensure that our relationship with dogs remains mutually beneficial.

It would be insufficient, however, to simply conduct this research without making concerted efforts to communicate our findings to the public. As we have illustrated in the domain of dog-training practices related to inhibitory control, a disconnect remains between empirical evidence and the knowledge of the general public and professionals who work with dogs. Reliance on intuition and anecdotal evidence can be combated with widely disseminated research findings. Comparative psychologists should seek to improve animal welfare by communicating findings more broadly and effectively, perhaps by sharing our work via podcasts, popular press articles, and other outreach activities. Making the research findings more accessible to a greater population will reduce the misconceptions that prevail in applied animal fields and ultimately improve the lives of the animals that we study.


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