Happy New Year!

Well here goes, the first blog entry of 2015! Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge Happy New Year to you all – and your 4 legged companions – we hope it is a very successful year for everyone!

Now time for a bit of a round up. 2014 was a busy year for the project, with both Stefanie and myself settling into our roles in the team and Sarah going off on maternity leave with baby Reuben. We worked with dogs at the North Lincolnshire branch of Jerry Green Rescue and at Mayflower Sanctuary for Animals near Doncaster, where we were fortunate to meet lots of lovely dogs waiting for their new homes, as well as their very helpful carers. The rescue dogs were always pleased to see us and looked forward to taking part in the different studies – including using to learn how to eat from automated feeding devices and learning a task that required them to follow human eye gaze.

Maisie learning a hand touch

Maisie learning a hand touch

2014 also saw us complete a record number of studies with owned dogs, including investigating food preference, eye gaze and social reward tasks; all in the context of dogs experiencing a change in reward. During the summer, we had two international visiting students, one from Brazil and one from France, who worked alongside two of our own undergraduate students to investigate whether dogs altered their running speed when they experienced a change in reward at the end of a (not very long) runway.

Nayeli demonstrates a food preference

Nayeli demonstrating a food preference

You might remember that towards the end of the year we were looking for dogs to take part in a foraging task – where we were interested in looking at how dogs responded to an unexpected change from a high value food to a lower value food. This required dogs to search ‘activity boards’ to gain food rewards. Previously in other species, for example in rats, it has been shown that when an individual experiences a change in reward they spend increased time searching for the “lost” (and more desirable) reward. We wanted to see whether this was the case for dogs too. We are still busy analysing all of the data, but the initial findings look promising and we will update you as soon as we can. Here you can see a video of Rue showing us how it should be done!

In total, over 100 owned dogs took part in our project last year!! We would like to say a MASSIVE thank you to them all, and for all you patient owners for letting them take part and bringing them along. We really couldn’t have done it without you and it has been a pleasure to meet so many new faces, and catch up with old friends too. We love to hear what they are up to so please do keep us posted of any adventures they get up to!

The New Year signals the start of some new studies for us, and we are already planning exciting new things for you and your dog to get involved in. The promising findings of the foraging task mean that we may be looking to conduct another similar study – this time taking additional (non-invasive) physiological measures including heart rate and urine samples. If you think your dog might be interested in taking part, or if you would like to register an interest in case of anything coming up in the future, please contact me directly (hthompson@lincoln.ac.uk) for more information.

Moya learning how to use the activity board!

Moya learning how to use the activity board!

In the meantime, I will leave you with some of our favourite photos you have sent in over the past few months – and we look forward to receiving lots more! 

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Developing a novel method of assessing food preference in dogs

What did we want to find out?

Much research within the field of canine cognition is based upon the assumption that dogs favour certain food rewards over others. Previously reported methods of assessing such preferences involve measuring:

  1. The amount of food consumed within a set time period by an individual (it is generally accepted that the food consumed in the greatest quantity is preferred by the individual).
  2. How hard an animal is prepared to work in order to access a food reward (it is generally accepted that the harder an animal is prepared to work, the more they prefer the reward on offer).

However, both of these methods are limited in terms of their application. There is the potential for animals to become satiated and/or get bored of the task, and some tasks require extensive training before the animal is able to complete them. As a food preference test is often used prior to starting a study, animals that are full or tired are problematic as they are less likely to perform optimally during testing.

We were interested in developing a new method of assessing food preference that aimed to overcome these problems; thus developing a test that was both quick to carry out and reliable, and that did not involve feeding dogs large amounts of food.


How did we do this?

A variety of breeds and ages of dog were represented both across owned pet and rescue populations.  Twenty owned pet dogs, recruited from the dog database “PetsCanDo” (9 male, 11 female; mean age 6.35 years), and 24 rescue dogs, available for re-homing at the North Lincolnshire Centre of Jerry Green Dog Rescue, UK (19 male, 5 female; mean age 4.40 years) completed the study.

Each dog sampled 10 ml of two food types; one considered “high” value and one “low” value, based on the nutritional com-position of the foods. Immediately afterwards, 20 ml of each food type was placed in two separate, but identical, bowls inaccessible to the dogs (see pictures).

food pre


Dogs were given one minute off lead to explore, and the amount of time that they spent investigating each of the inaccessible food bowls was recorded.

The order of initial sampling of food (high or low value) and location of the food in relation to the dog during preference testing (left or right) were pseudo randomized. Owned dogs, only, received a repetition of the test with the position of the foods swapped, to assess the influence of side bias and test consistency within subjects


What did we find?

Regardless of test order or food position, owned dogs spent significantly more time investigating the high value food in comparison to the low (F1,19= 32.236, p<0.001). Likewise rescue dogs spent significantly more time investigating the high value food (t= 3.225, df=23, p=0.004).


Our results suggest that this is a quick, reliable and robust method of determining a preference between foods in both res-cue and owned dogs that does not require any training and avoids both fatigue and satiation.






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Investigating Successive Negative Contrast using Social Reward

What did we want to find out?

Typically, studies of successive negative contrast are conducted using food rewards of varying quality or quantity (as discussed here). There is evidence to suggest that many animals are able to show behaviours akin to disappointment when there is a sudden downshift in reward quality or quantity of food or liquid rewards, but to date this has not been investigated in relation to social rewards.

There are several studies that have shown the same areas of the brain to be responsible for processing social and non-social rewards, and that social rewards themselves can act as a natural reward to many species (shown by the fact that animals are prepared to work for contact with conspecifics).

As highly social animals that form close bonds not only with conspecifics but also with people (e.g. Topál et al. 1998), domestic dogs are well suited to investigate this question. Dogs generally show a preference for their owner over an unfamiliar person – indicated by seeking contact with their owner more than with a stranger, waiting by a door when their owner has left the room, and greeting their owner more enthusiastically than greeting a stranger.

Dog with unfamiliar person

Dog with unfamiliar person


Dog with familiar person

Therefore, the aim of this study was to investigate whether dogs were capable of showing behaviours akin to disappointment when, upon them expecting their owner to enter a room, an unfamiliar person entered instead.

How did we do this?

17 dogs of various breeds (9 neutered females, 7 neutered males, one intact male), ranging in age from 12-132 months, were enrolled in the study, which was designed as a within-subjects study (meaning that each animal experienced both the unshift and the downshift conditions over 2 consecutive weeks).

Before the study started, dogs were given time to explore the room and interact with their owner and the unfamiliar person. A third person (the observer) was also present but did not interact with the dog at any point during this phase. After the familiarisation period, the unfamiliar person and the owner left the room, leaving the dog alone in the room with the observer, who ignored the dog, and the trials began.

Trials were conducted sequentially, without breaks, and each trial consisted of three stages (Table 1):

Table 1: Description of the three stages

Stage Description
Stage 1 (anticipation of reward) Dog hears a knock on the door, and after a period of time the owner or unfamiliar person (dependant on condition) enters the room.
Stage 2 (access to reward) The owner/unfamiliar person is seated on a chair in the room for 30 seconds.
Stage 3 (loss of reward) The unfamiliar person/ owner exits the room. Stage 3 begins from when they have left the room until the knock on the door sounds again, signalling the start of the next trial.

In the unshift condition, an unfamiliar person entered the room in every trial. In the downshift condition, the dog’s owner entered the room in the initial trials, followed by a “downshift” in reward to the unfamiliar person entering the room, concluded with trials where the owner entered the room again.

When the owner/unfamiliar person were seated on the chair in the room with the dog, the dog was able to initiate tactile interaction with the person, but was also free to choose not to do so.

Dog greeting and interacting with owner 


Dog greeting and interacting with unfamiliar person (when expecting owner to enter)


Dog greeting and interacting with owner (after interacting with unfamiliar person)


What did we find?

We found that dogs behaved very differently when their owner was present compared to when the unfamiliar person was in the room with them. They spent more time focussed and in contact with the owner compared to the unfamiliar person, and they spent less time gazing at the door when with the owner than when with the unfamiliar person, indicating a clear preference for the owner over the unfamiliar person. Most interestingly, during the downshift condition, when dogs were expecting their owner to enter the room and instead it was the unfamiliar person, they spent significantly longer looking at the door compared to when the unfamiliar person entered during the unshift condition.

This is consistent with findings of SNC in consumatory studies: when an animal experiences a downshift in the quality or quantity of a food reward they appear to be “disappointed” and spend time searching for a better reward.

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Investigating Sensitivity to Reward Change using a Foraging Task

What do we want to know?

In other species, for example bees, it has been shown that when an individual experiences a change in reward from a high to a low quality, they spend an increased amount of time “searching” for the lost reward. In our newest study, we want to see whether this is the case for dogs too.

We are going to be investigating patterns of foraging in dogs with different quality rewards. As in the other studies, we are going to look at their responses to an unexpected change in the quality of reward, in the hope that we can find out more about their motivations and emotions when faced with change.

Spook                      Moya


How can you help?

We are looking for dogs over 6 months and with no food intolerances or history of resource guarding to take part in this study. You will need to be able to bring your dog in for 2 sessions, approximately 1 week apart, over the next few weeks. Please get in touch with hthompson@lincoln.ac.uk for more information on the project!

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