Dogs, like humans, perform better under right amount of stress

Just like in humans, stress can give mellow dogs an edge, but it can make hyper dogs crack, a new study suggests.

Washington: Just like in humans, stress can give mellow dogs an edge, but it can make hyper dogs crack, a new study suggests.

The study conducted by researchers at Duke University has found that a little extra stress gives calm dogs an edge over hyper dogs.

"When you're taking a test, for example, it helps to be a little bit anxious so you don't just blow it off," said co-author Emily Bray, who was an undergraduate at Duke at the time of the study.

"But if you're too nervous, even if you study and you really know the material, you aren't going to perform at your best," Bray said.

Researchers first observed this pattern more than a hundred years ago in lab rats, but it has since been demonstrated in chickens, cats and humans.

In the study, a team consisting of Bray and evolutionary anthropologists Evan MacLean and Brian Hare of Duke's Canine Cognition Centre wanted to find out if the conditions that enable certain animals to do their best also depend on the animal's underlying temperament.

In a series of experiments, the researchers challenged dogs to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier that was six feet wide and three feet tall.

The dogs had to resist the impulse to try to take the shortest path to reach the treat - which would only cause them to bump their heads against the plastic - and instead walk around the barrier to one of the open sides.

In one set of trials, an experimenter stood behind the barrier holding a treat and called the dog's name in a calm, flat voice.

In another set of trials, the experimenter enthusiastically waved the treat in the air and used an urgent, excited voice.

The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, ranging in age from an eight-month-old Jack Russell terrier to an 11-year-old Vizsla. They also tested 76 assistance dogs at Canine Companions for Independence in California.

"The service dogs were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction, whereas the pet dogs tended to be more excitable and high-strung," Bray said.

For the dogs that were naturally calm and laid-back - measured by how quickly they tended to wag their tails - increasing the level of excitement and urgency boosted their ability to stay on task and get the treat.

But for excitable dogs the pattern was reversed. Increasing the level of stimulation only made them take longer.

The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service dog training programs, for example.

The study was published in the journal Animal Cognition. 

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