Date of Award

Spring 5-8-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Dr. Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere

Second Advisor

Dr. Joshua Plotnik

Academic Program Adviser

Karolina Czech


Dogs play an increasingly important role in human society as companions but also in the working sector. The working dog industry is currently struggling to meet the high demands for working dogs across all sectors with only approximately half the dogs acquired reaching their intended careers. Current behavior and temperament assessments are lacking in standardization and objectivity when identifying successful working dogs, which has prompted the industry to re-evaluate the methods used when selecting dogs. Behavioral cognitive testing, including reversal learning, has proven to be a beneficial tool in assessing physical cognition in pet dogs and, more recently, in working dogs as it targets executive processes involved with decision making and behavioral flexibility. This study compares the performance of three working dogs careers (Penn Vet Working Dog Center), single purpose detection (N = 10), dual purpose detection (N = 5), and urban search and rescue (N = 7), with the performance of pet dogs (N = 9), recruited from New York City (Thinking Dog Center), in a visual discrimination reversal learning task conducted over seven weeks. As behavioral flexibility is a beneficial and necessary trait within working dog’s ever-changing environment, it was predicted that working dogs, regardless of career, would perform better than pet dogs in both the acquisition and reversal phases of the task. No significant differences were observed between the working dog careers in this task, and therefore the results presented for working dogs encompass all three careers. In the acquisition phase, no differences were observed between working dogs and pet dogs (U = 66.5, p = .160). In the reversal phase, no significant difference in the proportion of errors (t( 29) = 1.77, p = .088) or correct choices (t( 29) = 1.77, p = .088) was observed between working dogs and pet dogs, however, working dogs made significantly less “no choices” (U = 176, p < .001). As both working and pet dogs were able to achieve criterion and complete the task, these results suggest it may be suitable for assessing physical cognition in dogs, though it cannot be used to distinguish working dog cognition.



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