SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A new study by researchers at Duke University found that a little extra stimulation makes hyper dogs crack under pressure but gives mellow dogs an edge.
As it turns out, a little stress can be a good thing but only up to a point. A task that isn’t demanding or challenging enough can make it hard to stay engaged and perform at one’s peak. But when the pressure is too much, performance suffers.
“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 study co-author Emily Bray, a Duke undergraduate. “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.”
To test the dogs, researchers challenged them to retrieve a meat jerky treat from a person standing behind a clear plastic barrier. The dogs had to resist the impulse to take the shortest path to the treat, but to walk around the barrier instead.
The researchers tested 30 pet dogs, from an eight-month-old Jack Russell Terrier to an 11-year-old Vizsla. They also tested 76 assistance dogs, who, they say, were generally more cool in the face of stress or distraction.
Both groups solved the puzzle but had different optimal levels of stress. The naturally calm and laid-back dogs performed well under pressure, while the excitable dogs had a hard time adjusting to the high level of stimulation.
The results will help researchers develop better tests to determine which dogs are likely to graduate from service training programs.