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Dogs, Kids & Learning: A Comparative Exploration

While anthropomorphism can be a slippery slope to unrealistic comparisons between humans and animals, to deny the similarities between the ways in which dogs and children learn would be intellectually dishonest. And in doing so we would miss an opportunity to better understand the minds of two animals that have co-evolved alongside one another for the mutual benefit of both species over many thousands of years. Because dogs’ and humans’ respective evolutionary paths have become so inextricably intertwined, it makes sense that many of the mechanisms for learning in one would be reflected somehow in the other.

One of the most influential contributors to the modern school of “dog teaching” is Bonnie Bergin. Dr. Bergin is renowned for creating assistance dogs for people with physical disabilities and mobility issues. Not only was Bonnie ahead of her time in believing dogs could be trained to complete such complex tasks as opening doors and turning lights on and off; she saw in dogs the cognitive capacity to think and solve complex problems; to piece together information and truly learn. For a human child’s learning and behavior to be deeply influenced by an adult person’s thoughts, feelings and communicated sentiments makes sense. What researchers are discovering today is that dogs are influenced by their human trainers in the same way children are.

In Bonnie Bergin’s book, Teach Your Dog To Read, Bonnie states “If she doesn’t catch on at first, never laugh at her or show disappointment. Frustration, anger and disappointment, just like praise, can serve as reinforcers” (Bergin, 2006). An encouraging attitude or spirit is key with regard to learning in both dogs and children. According to prominent voices in child learning and development, encouragement is a key concept in promoting and activating “psychological hardiness” in individuals (Griffith & Powers, 1984).

Because dogs and humans are both highly social animals, social learning theory applies to both species respectively. There is also research into the theory that social learning in domestic dogs has been heavily influenced by dogs’ co-evolution with humans. In other words, dogs learn from their own canine social groups as well as from their human group or “pack” members. Social learning can reduce the costs (e.g. time, effort, risk) involved in the acquisition of resources or new skills (Mersmann, Dorit et al., 2011). Furthermore, the capability to use information provided by others is a prerequisite for the evolution of culture (Mersmann, Dorit, et al., 2011). One context in which information is passed between members of a social group is play, and the benefits of play are very evident in the learning processes of both children and dogs. A study on children living in Mother Teresa’s Orphanage in Dehli, India, looked at the effects of daily playtime on orphans’ psychomotor and social development over a thirty day period, as compared to a group that received only the minimum of care as in feeding and bathing, but were denied social interaction. As hypothesized, the children who were able to play each day, even for a short time, became more active, responsive and independent (Taneja, et al., 2002).

Similar studies in shelter dogs show congruent results. Aimee Sadler is a veteran animal trainer who specializes in dogs’ behavioral problems. Aside from working with private clients, she helps shelters form playgroups as a way of socializing dogs, and ultimately making them more adoptable. Sadler states, “Play groups are a natural way for dogs to blow off steam and counteract the stresses of shelter life. Through group interactions, dogs teach each other how to behave, addressing such problems as resource guarding, dog-on-dog aggression, and on-leash reactivity” (Animal Sheltering, November/December 2011). The playgroups provide much needed and sorely lacking stimulation in the areas of physical exercise, mental engagement and stress relief. And perhaps most importantly, carefully structured playtime provides the foundation for social learning among dogs, many of whom have never been properly introduced or otherwise interacted with other dogs, which is a fundamental reason dogs end up in shelters to begin with. Furthermore, watching dogs play is a major learning opportunity for human caregivers, and seeing different dogs’ social skills and play styles helps them make better adoptive matches. In summary, giving kids and dogs a chance to thrive and learn from their peers in social situations is just as critical to health and well-being as is eating and sleeping.

Another intriguing area of study in a world evolving at warp speed is the application of technology to enhance learning processes, or enable entirely new ones. Children naturally explore and learn about their environments through inquiry, and computer technologies offer an accessible vehicle for extending the domain and range of this inquiry (Wang, et al., 2009). Researchers from Mount Saint Mary College and University of Virginia conducted experiments to look at early childhood education software and its effects on inquiry-based learning and complex problem solving. In essence, inquiry-based “teaching” is the allowance by teachers of their students to ask questions, encouragement to be inquisitive and explore the world around them, and learn how to ask even more complex questions. In controlled experiments like this one, technology was used to present problem contexts pertinent to the inquiry subject matter and guide learners into encountering complex domains that are productive for learning (Reiser, 2004).

Because we also live in a world where humans’ relationships with dogs are evolving at the “speed of life”, new technologies are emerging that will enhance those relationships. Not only are there whimsical smart phone apps that allow dogs and cats to take photos of themselves, but some highly innovative technologies are being designed with the goal of empowering assistance dogs to do their jobs more efficiently. One such project is discussed in research coming out of The Open University in London.

With the objective in mind of easing diabetic alert dogs’ stress when their human partners fall unconscious, an emerging field called Animal-Computer Interaction (ACI’s) aim is to design canine-friendly technological interfaces for working dogs. When training a dog to perform a command or set of commands, setting the dog up for success is critical to the dog’s ability to learn the task at hand and perform it effectively. It is unfair to set a dog up to fail, such as when we ask him to do something that he must face with an automatic disadvantage. One type of potentially stressful task that assistance dogs face is assisting their humans in using technologies that were not designed for them, but rather for humans. For example, mobility service dogs learn how to execute tasks such as opening doors, loading laundry machines and pressing elevators or button-operated doors. And they are often performing such tasks at a deficit because their own physical capabilities are very different from those of the human users for which the tools were intended (Robinson, et al., 2014). The research team from The Open University is working on building a prototype for an intelligent canine user alarm interface, which would not only alert outside sources for help in emergency situations, but also give feedback to the dog by interpreting sensory information or the dogs’ body language. The researchers concluded that an effective system will make it clear to the dog not only how he can interact with the system, but also when he has interacted with the system successfully(Robinson, et al., 2014).

The Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness (2008) reports innovative training utilizing an advanced GPS system through the collaboration between Leader Dogs for the Blind and a tech company called HumanWare. The device gives audible, step-by-step directions for a programmed route, and notifies the user of upcoming streets and landmarks (Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, November 2008).

Not only do proper social conditions and technology helps kids and dogs learn, exercise does a mind good as much as it does a body. From the crisis of inactivity that has befallen both children and pet dogs, comes research from the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois. Researchers there are looking at the positive effect aerobic exercise has on children’s learning and memory capabilities. Poor physical health in and of itself is bad. Worse still it represents a person’s health in its entirety. And according to this and other studies of its kind, poor physical health effects cognitive health negatively. In children, lower amounts of fitness have been related to decreased cognitive function for tasks requiring perception, memory, and cognitive control as well as lower academic achievement (Raine, LB, et al., 2013).

While – to my knowledge – there are no studies at present to determine whether or not a dog’s physical fitness correlates with their cognitive function, it only makes sense to assume that it does. There is, however, plenty of anecdotal and some scientific evidence to suggest that exercise has a marked positive effect on dogs’ behavior; and that dogs who engage in physical activity regularly are less likely to be destructive and suffer from psychological and emotional barriers to well-being than more sedentary dogs. Experts at The Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Medicine, Tufts University, advise that “A tired dog is a happy dog”, and suggests providing exercise and environmental enrichment to stimulate the dog both physically and mentally is critical to over all health and functionality. Aerobic exercise stimulates the production of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that helps to stabilize mood and produce feelings of contentment, which can help relax an otherwise anxious or aggressive dog (, 2014). They also remind us that a fat dog is not a happy dog, but one whose health is at serious risk.

The further we travel in our co-evolutionary journey, the more dogs and humans learn about the world — in our respective ways that are species-specific; and as a reflection of ourselves in one another.

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