Vol. 2 No. 1 (2016)

Problem solving games as a tool to reduce fear of strangers in dogs

Published 2016-03-30


  • dog,
  • fear,
  • problem solving.


Problem solving games are often advised in the behavioral therapy of fearful dogs. There has been little experimental work conducted on animals with respect to the intrinsic reinforcing properties of problem solving or the emotional consequences of responding to challenge.

The aim of the current study was to assess their effectiveness in reducing fear in dogs.

The sample consisted of 17 dogs. Dogs’ fear was evaluated through four subtests of the Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA), focusing on dog behaviour towards people.

The first subtest consisted of a social contact with a stranger (test leader, TL) who approached the handler and then tried to walk the dog.

In the second, another TL was hooded and encouraged the dog to play, moving in front him/her and shaking a rope.

In the third a manikin suddenly appeared in the dog’s path.

In the last subtest a third TL spent 3 minutes talking to the dog handler without interacting with the animal. In each subtest a score varying from 1 (extreme display of fear) to 5 (no fear) was assigned to dogs’ behaviour by two trained observers.

Dogs resulted fearful were divided into an experimental group (13 dogs: 3 males and 10 females,) and a control group (4 dogs: 2 males and 2 females).

The experimental group underwent problem solving sessions carried out by experimenters (different from TL) in a room, with games of increasing complexity. The number of sessions needed to solve all the games was 6.6±2.6.

Sixty days after the first test, all dogs were blindly assessed by repeating the test to evaluate possible behavioral changes towards proposed stimuli.

Data was statistically analyzed by using a Wilcoxon signed-rank test (p=0,05).

Dogs belonging to the experimental group statistically increased their scores after the problem solving sessions in t1 (W=-91.0, p<0.022) but not in the control group (W= -1,0; p=0.317).

Moreover, the number of times dogs showed no sign of timorousness (score=5) was statistically higher after the treatment (13 versus 0; X2=11.815; p=0.000).

Results of this study showed that dogs of the experimental group obtained statistically higher scores in the DMA after problem solving sessions, meaning that they appeared less fearful, but not for the control group. This result suggests that the improvement of the experimental group could be related to problem solving sessions, and that they may be effective in reducing fear in dogs.