can your dog's upbringing influence her decisions?

Posted by Dr. Ernie Ward on Oct 09 2014

As an expert in pet weight loss and nutrition, I’m constantly looking at cutting edge research for insights into treating pet obesity. Occasionally I run across a paper that starts out fascinating but goes incredibly peculiar. One such paper is the University of Kentucky string cheese and baby carrots study.

In cognitive research, there’s a well-known phenomenon known as “less is more.” In simplest terms, we choose less of something we like over more of something we don’t like. Humans typically choose a set of six baseball cards in perfect condition over the same set with an additional three cards in poor condition. Monkeys have been shown to eat one grape over one grape plus a cucumber when offered a choice. No one had checked if dogs agree with “less is more” until some bright scientists at the University of Kentucky came along.

The study was pretty straightforward: ten dogs that liked both string cheese and baby carrots were enrolled. Researchers started by offering them string cheese. The dogs ate it. They next offered baby carrots. Again, the dogs cheerily chomped away. But now for the big question: What would happen if the dogs were offered the choice between string cheese and string cheese plus carrots? Any pet parent knows the answer. The dogs slurped the string cheese, ignored the carrot and asked for more cheese, please.

Well, just nine of the ten dogs. Interestingly, and this is where this sort of research gets complicated, the dog that preferred the cheese plus carrot combo was rescued from an animal shelter. This dog most likely grew up in an environment where more really was more - where eating extra food, even if it wasn’t his favorite, could’ve been the difference between life and death. The other nine dogs were probably soft and cuddly lap buddies who never tipped a garbage bin for their supper.

The take-home message from this small study is that dogs, like humans and primates, probably have some high level decision-making abilities. It also demonstrates that a dog’s upbringing may influence her decisions. I have one rescue dog that lived on the streets for the first six months of her life and she still hides her toys and scarfs her food. Harry, whom we adopted at three months from a caring home, hasn’t a worry in the world.

This research proves once again how advanced and complex dogs truly are. Our current understanding of dogs credits them with intelligence, emotions and behaviors that extend far beyond the “I live to eat and procreate” ideology of the previous hundred years. Dogs and cats are wonderfully amazing and interesting animals that we’re fortunate to share our lives with.