Looking to train a top performance dog? You might start by giving him a test to see whether he prefers one paw over another.
Paw preference has been associated with several aspects of learning and performance. It’s not that southpaws have funny handwriting; in fact, it’s more that dogs who have a strong preference for either side tend to do better at many learning and performance tasks, compared to ambidextrous dogs.
Asking him to write his name doesn’t work well. Instead, researchers have used a couple of ways to measure paw preference.
Stick some tape to the dog’s nose and see which paw he uses to scrape it off. Or place a blanket on the dog’s head and see which paw he uses to get it off. Put some food in a can or a Kong toy and see which paw he uses to hold the container or toy.
Further, it turns out that a dog’s performance can be affected by what side of the dog his handler is on. This is apart from the habit formed by always heeling on the person’s left side.
These two findings can have implications for how you choose and train an agility dog, and possibly any other dog required to do complex tasks.
The recent article “Laterality and performance of agility-trained dogs” in the journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition addressed the association between paw preference, distractibility and handler position on performance. Marcello Siniscalchi from the department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Bari in Italy led a study to look at the interaction between dog’s lateralization, distractibility score on a questionnaire (the owner filled it out, not the dog) and speed on a simple agility combination.
The researchers tested 19 adult dogs of various ages and breeds and mixes and sizes. The dog-owner pairs were chosen from teams in which the people routinely handled their dog from both sides both during agility training and everyday activities. To test paw preference, each dog was given a Kong filled with sticky food and tested for two-minute intervals once a month for 10 months.
The dogs were also tested on two agility sequences: a jump followed by an A-frame and a jump followed by 12 weave poles. The teams negotiated both sequences with the handler on the right and on the left sides. They were tested repeatedly, three times in a day, twice a week over two weeks, until they had 12 trials for each condition.
Negotiating the weave poles was considered to require much more attention from the dog compared to the A-frame. The dog has to enter the weave poles with the first pole on its left, and can’t miss any of the poles until exiting after the final one.
Overall, the dogs took longer to complete the weave poles and made more mistakes in them when their owners were on the dog’s left side. The performance on the A-frame was not nearly as adversely affected, because the A-frame is a much simpler and spatially less complex task.
The degree of this effect had to do with how distractible the dog was, as determined by the responses on the questionnaire. The more distractible the dog, the more adversely the dog was affected by the owner being on the left side.
And back to paw preference: Dogs with weaker paw preference were more easily distracted and were slower to complete the weaves when the owner was on the left.
There was a significant correlation between the strength of paw preference, trainability, and weave pole speed.
These findings make sense in light of what scientists know about brain lateralization. Information from the dog’s left visual field travels to the right hemisphere of the brain. As in humans, this side is more involved in emotional responses. And this makes stimuli that evoke an emotional response — stimuli like an owner — potentially more distracting when it is presented to the dog’s left side.
“Visual analysis of the owner predominantly by the left eye was likely to increase the arousal state of the dogs, thus distracting them during agility obstacles performance,” said the article’s authors.
Agility handlers refer to “on-side” (handler on the dog’s right) and “off-side” (handler on the dog’s left) weaves, and many feel their dogs don’t do as well on off-side weaves. They have traditionally attributed it to training the on-side weaves more, or first — but, in fact, the difference may be hardwired in their dogs’ brains!
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.