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Open AccessArticle

Development of a Spatial Discount Task to Measure Impulsive Choices in Dogs

Laboratorio di Etologia Applicata, Dipartimento di Biomedicina Comparata e Alimentazione, Università degli Studi di Padova. Viale dell’Università 16, 35020 Legnaro, Italy
Dipartimento di Biologia, Università di Napoli Federico II, Via Cinthia, Edificio 7, 80126 Napoli, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Animals 2019, 9(7), 469;
Received: 12 June 2019 / Revised: 8 July 2019 / Accepted: 13 July 2019 / Published: 23 July 2019
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Dog Behaviour, Physiology and Welfare)
Impulsivity is believed to play a role in problematic behaviors in dogs. In this study, we developed a test to assess dogs’ tendency to make impulsive choices, that is their preference for smaller immediate reward instead of larger, but harder to obtain ones. Dogs were first trained that a bowl presented on a certain side always contained a large food amount, whereas the one presented on the opposite side (although at the same distance from the dog) contained less food. Then, the bowl with less food was progressively placed closer to the dog. As expected, dogs’ choices to feed from the bowl with less food increased as the distance of the latter decreased. Choices did not depend on factors that could interfere, such as dogs’ level of motivation for food, training experience, or learning ability. This indicates that the test is likely to be actually assessing impulsivity, not other traits. Also, female dogs were more likely to make impulsive choices than males, in accordance with what is known in humans and rodents, supporting the validity of the test. The test was completed in less than 1 h, making it a valid option to assess impulsivity in dogs in various contexts.
Impulsive choices reflect an individual’s tendency to prefer a smaller immediate reward over a larger delayed one. Here, we have developed a behavioural test which can be easily applied to assess impulsive choices in dogs. Dogs were trained to associate one of two equidistant locations with a larger food amount when a smaller amount was presented in the other location, then the smaller amount was placed systematically closer to the dog. Choices of the smaller amount, as a function of distance, were considered a measure of the dog’s tendency to make impulsive choices. All dogs (N = 48) passed the learning phase and completed the entire assessment in under 1 h. Choice of the smaller food amount increased as this was placed closer to the dog. Choices were independent from food motivation, past training, and speed of learning the training phase; supporting the specificity of the procedure. Females showed a higher probability of making impulsive choices, in agreement with analogue sex differences found in human and rodent studies, and supporting the external validity of our assessment. Overall, the findings support the practical applicability and represent a first indication of the validity of this method, making it suitable for investigations into impulsivity in dogs.
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Keywords: dog; behavioral test; impulsivity; sex differences; learning; validation dog; behavioral test; impulsivity; sex differences; learning; validation
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Mongillo, P.; Scandurra, A.; Eatherington, C.J.; D’Aniello, B.; Marinelli, L. Development of a Spatial Discount Task to Measure Impulsive Choices in Dogs. Animals 2019, 9, 469.

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