Why Grumpy Dogs Can Be Smart Learners

They pay a lot of attention to the people around them.

Close-Up Of Dog In Car
Researchers rated dogs on their irritability factor. Roberto Anania / EyeEm / Getty Images

Is your dog grumpy? You know the type. Maybe they’re surly when they get up from a nap or if you pet them the wrong way. Unlike friendlier dogs, they don’t wag their tails much or hit you up for treats or a scratch behind the ears.

Grumpy dogs might have a cranky reputation, but a new study, published in the journal Animals, finds they’re also smarter than their friendlier counterparts when it comes to learning from strangers.

Researchers at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, do a lot of work with canine subjects. Before starting this particular study, they asked owners to complete a questionnaire about their dog’s behavior and found a factor they called “irritability.”

“Dogs with high irritability scores tend to growl when being bathed or groomed, they growl when they don’t like something, they even snap at or bite other dogs or people in their owner’s presence, but they are also more persistent when they want to obtain something and tend to behave in an assertive way,” study co-author, Ph.D. student Kata Vékony, tells Treehugger.

“To put it simply: These dogs like to have things their way and can’t really handle any sort of nuisance or discomfort.”

The study didn't look at which breeds might be grumpier; they relied on owner reports for specific dogs.

A Challenging Test

For the experiment, researchers set up a V-shaped wire mesh fence. Dogs were brought to the outside point of the V and had to go around the fence in order to get a favorite treat or favorite toy that was in plain view. It’s instinct for a dog to head straight toward something they want, so this test was frustrating.

“The detour paradigm has been used in social learning tests in the past two decades—it tends to be challenging for dogs to detour around a V-shaped fence because first, they have to move away from the reward in order to obtain it,” Vékony says. “Dogs tend to have a hard time solving it on their own, but they can successfully learn from demonstration.”

Researchers divided the dogs into three groups. In one experiment, dogs watched as a reward was dropped over the fence into the corner and then were given a chance to try to figure out by themselves how to get it. But most dogs were unable to do it in 60 seconds. The next group watched as the experimenter walked around the fence with the reward and placed it down. The third group watched as their owner walked around and did the same thing.

The researchers found that both sets of dogs (grumpy and friendly) did equally well when their owners showed them how to get to the reward. However, the grumpier dogs were more successful at learning from strangers.

“More irritable dogs might be more attentive to the actions of humans around them, and attentiveness is the key to successful social learning,” Vékony says. “On the other hand, the connection with and dependency on the owner is so important that dogs pay a uniformly high level of attention to their actions.”

The findings were published in the journal Animals.

Grumpy Dogs Aren't Bad Dogs

Researchers used this same setup in an earlier experiment where they found out that dogs in the same home with different personalities had different learning styles. More submissive dogs learned more quickly from dogs they didn’t know, watching them successfully navigate around the fence to get the reward. More dominant dogs, however, who were less used to watching other dogs for cues, were unable to learn as easily how to get to the reward.

“Dominant dogs couldn’t learn from the unfamiliar dog at all, but subordinate dogs did very well,” Vékony says. “We think that this difference is caused by the different previous social experience of dominant and subordinate dogs: Subordinate dogs learned it is beneficial to pay attention to the actions of others, while dominant dogs only really had to pay attention to their owners.”

While this learning ability might not make up for their other character shortcomings, it’s something, researchers say.

“I think it is important to understand that grumpy dogs are not necessarily ‘bad dogs,’’' says Vékony. “While their tolerance for inconvenience might be low and they are not good at handling such situations, they are also persistent if they are motivated and very attentive to people.”

View Article Sources
  1. Pongrácz, Péter, et al. "Grumpy Dogs are Smart Learners—The Association Between Dog–Owner Relationship and Dogs’ Performance in a Social Learning Task." Animals, vol. 11, no. 4, 2021, p. 961, doi:10.3390/ani11040961