Waiting for more: the performance of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) on exchange tasks


Five domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were tested in a cooperative exchange task with an experimenter, as previously tested in non-human primates. In the first task, the dogs exchanged to maximise payoffs when presented with food items of differing quality. All consistently exchanged lower-value for higher-value rewards, as determined by their individual food preference, and exchanges corresponded significantly with the spontaneous preferences of three dogs. Next, all subjects demonstrated an ability to perform two and three exchanges in succession, to gain both qualitative and quantitatively increased rewards (group mean = 72 and 92% successful triple exchanges, respectively). Finally, the ability to delay gratification over increasing intervals was tested; the dogs kept one food item to exchange later for a larger item. As previously reported in non-human primates, there was considerable individual variation in the tolerance of delays, between 10 s and 10 min for the largest rewards. For those who reached longer time lags (>40 s), the dogs gave up the chance to exchange earlier than expected by each subject’s general waiting capacity; the dogs anticipated delay duration and made decisions according to the relative reward values offered. Compared to primates, dogs tolerated relatively long delays for smaller value rewards, suggesting that the socio-ecological history of domestic dogs facilitates their performance on decision-making and delay of gratification tasks.

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We would like to thank Han de Vries (University of Utrecht) for devising the procedure used in the analysis of error times and Peter Cahusac for his help with additional statistical analyses. We are also grateful to the owners of the dogs involved in the study, Yvonne Bissell, and Lynne, Adrian and Bethan Hallgarth. We would also like to thank Jeff Stevens for helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Part of this research was funded by the Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR-08-Blanc-0042-01).

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Correspondence to Rebecca J. Leonardi.

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Leonardi, R.J., Vick, S. & Dufour, V. Waiting for more: the performance of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) on exchange tasks. Anim Cogn 15, 107–120 (2012).

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  • Delay of gratification
  • Reciprocity
  • Cooperation
  • Exchange
  • Domestic dogs