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The "Unsolvable Task"

Learning about how dogs think about their world is hard when compared to most human psychology research. This is mainly because dogs lack the ability to verbally communicate things like “hey I actually am using my nose not my eyes in this task”. Guess who else can’t speak to researchers about how they are perceiving the study? Babies! For this reason, canine cognition researchers use measures similar to some infant studies, such as looking/gaze and searching behavior to understand underlying cognitive processes.

In the next few posts, I will be featuring findings based on a method called the “Unsolvable Task”, an experiment that helps researchers understand aspects of social cognition and persistence in dogs. Read on to understand how this task works.

In the unsolvable task, dogs are placed in an area with a container covering a high value item such as food or a toy. The first time the dog goes over to the container, they are able to easily push the box off a small platform to retrieve the food or toy. This is repeated two more times, where the dog is easily able to push the container to receive the reward. The above image is of a dog completing one of these three “solvable” trials. Next, the dog is faced with the unsolvable task. This time, when they approach the container, it will not move. It is screwed to the wood panel and the dog cannot move it to retrieve their toy or food. During this trial, the dog’s behavior is carefully recorded, as it can tell us a lot about their cognition.

During the unsolvable condition, the researcher is interested in the gaze or looking behavior of the dog as well as how persistent the dog is at trying to obtain the reward. The owner or an experimenter (depending on the study) stands close to the dog, and the researchers measure how much the dog looks at the person. It is theorized that this looking behavior occurs because the dog is trying to ask for help in solving their problem. The amount of time that the dog spends asking for help vs. trying to solve their problem can tell us a lot about canine social cognition.

What can the “Unsolvable Task” tell us? Stay tuned for our next series of posts to find out!

Reference: Passalacqua, C., Marshall-Pescini, S., Barnard, S., Lakatos, G., Valsecchi, P., Prato Previde, E., 2011. Human-directed gazing behaviour in puppies and adult dogs, Canis lupus familiaris. Anim. Behav. 82 (5), 1043–1050. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav. 2011.07.039