Environmental influences on development of executive functions in dogs

Abstract

Executive functions (EFs) are a set of cognitive processes used for effortful self-regulation of behaviour. They include inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility and, in some models, attention. In humans, socioeconomic factors and life experiences shape development of EFs. Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) must often regulate their behaviour in the human environment (e.g. no jumping up on humans or chasing cats), and life experiences also probably influence the development of EFs in dogs. Research into dog cognition and behaviour has been thriving, and some methods used to explore these concepts (e.g. object-choice task, questionnaires measuring traits like distraction and aggression) are likely to be sensitive to differences in EFs, even if that is not their stated aim. Here we examine relevant studies to identify experiential factors which may influence the development of EFs in dogs living in human care. These are early experience, training, housing and stress. We conclude that the development of dogs’ EFs may be negatively affected by hardships, and positively by surmountable challenges, early in life. Training methods appear important, with punishment-based methods leading to poorer dog EFs. Kennel environments seem to affect dog EFs negatively. While mild stressors might enhance the development of EFs, too much stress seems to have negative effects. Regulation of behaviour, a key outcome of EFs, is crucial for dogs’ integration into human society. We should, therefore, strive to better understand how the environment shapes dogs’ EFs.