Understanding Your Dog's Behavior: The Science Behind Independent Exploration and Problem Solving

Border collie exploring a stream

Have you ever wondered why your furry friend seems so focused on exploring the world around them? By aligning your interactions and training with your dog’s instincts, you can enhance your relationship and ensure that he/she leads a fulfilling and enriched life.

A recent study provides valuable insights into how dogs approach problem-solving and their interactions with their owners. 

Exploring the World Through Their Eyes

Dogs are known for their curious and inquisitive nature. From sniffing out hidden treats to investigating the great outdoors, their exploration seems boundless. But have you ever wondered why your dog appears so focused on exploring rather than seeking help from you when faced with a challenge?

The study by Dr Angie Johnston and her colleagues delves into precisely that question, and the findings might surprise you. Contrary to the belief that dogs are overly reliant on their human companions, the research suggests that dogs actually prioritize independent exploration in problem-solving scenarios. 

The Study in a Nutshell

The researchers conducted a series of experiments to understand how dogs tackle tasks when faced with different options. Here are the key takeaways from their study:

  1. Dogs Prioritize Exploration: In the experiments, dogs consistently chose to explore alternative solutions before seeking help from their owners. This behavior was observed even when the task at hand became challenging or unsolvable.
  1. Context Matters: Dogs were sensitive to the context and adapted their behavior accordingly. When an alternative task was available, they were more likely to explore it first. However, when no alternative was present, they were more inclined to look back at their owners.

  2. Not Just About Rewards: While food motivation played a role in their behavior, the study suggests that dogs prioritize independent exploration across various contexts, not solely driven by the possibility of rewards.

Whippet lying on the floor looking alert. Photo by Henrik Petersen.

What Does This Mean for Dog Owners?

Understanding your dog's behavior can strengthen your bond and improve your training efforts. Here's how this research might be relevant to you as a dog owner:

  1. Encourage Exploration: Recognize and encourage your dog's natural curiosity. Provide them with opportunities to explore their environment, both indoors and outdoors, to keep their minds engaged.
  1. Balance Independence and Guidance: While dogs prioritize independent exploration, they still value your presence and support. Find a balance between allowing them to explore on their own and being there to offer guidance when needed.
  1. Tailor Training: Knowing that dogs prefer independent problem-solving activities, consider this in your training approach. Provide them with puzzles and challenges that will mentally stimulate these skills.
  1. Be Patient: When your dog is faced with a task, give them time to explore and figure things out on their own. Avoid rushing to help unless they seem genuinely stuck. 



Dogs are incredible creatures with unique behaviors and instincts. This study highlights the importance of understanding and appreciating their natural tendencies, especially their preference for independent exploration. By aligning your interactions and training with their instincts, you can enhance your relationship with your four-legged companion and ensure they lead fulfilling, enriched lives.

So, the next time you see your dog engrossed in exploring a new scent or investigating a mysterious sound, know that they are simply following their natural instincts, and it's all part of what makes them so amazing.


Reference: Johnston, A. M., Chang, L. W., Wharton, K., & Santos, L. R. (2021). Dogs (Canis familiaris) prioritize independent exploration over looking back. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 135(3), 370-381. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/com0000233


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