Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs

Abstract

Animals may experience positive affective states in response to their own achievements. We investigated emotional responses to problem-solving in dogs, separating these from reactions to rewards per se using a yoked control design. We also questioned whether the intensity of reaction would vary with reward type. We examined the response (behavior and heart rate) of dogs as they learned to gain access to different rewards: (1) food (2) human contact, and (3) dog contact. Twelve beagles were assigned to matched pairs, and each dog served as both an experimental and a control animal during different stages of the experiment. We trained all dogs to perform distinct operant tasks and exposed them to additional devices to which they were not trained. Later, dogs were tested in a new context. When acting as an experimental dog, access to the reward was granted immediately upon completion of trained operant tasks. When acting as a control, access to the reward was independent of the dog’s actions and was instead granted after a delay equal to their matched partner’s latency to complete their task. Thus, differences between the two situations could be attributed to experimental dogs having the opportunity to learn to control access to the reward. Experimental dogs showed signs of excitement (e.g., increased tail wagging and activity) in response to their achievements, whereas controls showed signs of frustration (e.g., chewing of the operant device) in response to the unpredictability of the situation. The intensity of emotional response in experimental dogs was influenced by the reward type, i.e., greatest response to food and least to another dog. Our results suggest that dogs react emotionally to problem-solving opportunities and that tail wagging may be a useful indicator of positive affective states in dogs.

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Acknowledgments

This project was funded by the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS). The final stages of this work were carried out in collaboration within the Centre of Excellence in Animal Welfare Science, a Swedish collaborative research environment.

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None.

Ethical standards

This study was reviewed and approved by the Swedish Ethical Committee on Animal Research in Uppsala, Sweden. All aspects of the study comply with the current laws of Sweden where the study was performed.

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Correspondence to Ragen T. S. McGowan.

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McGowan, R.T.S., Rehn, T., Norling, Y. et al. Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Anim Cogn 17, 577–587 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x

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Keywords

  • Canis familiaris
  • Canine
  • Positive emotions
  • Problem-solving
  • Behavior
  • Animal welfare