See more of the story

Do you have a grumpy dog? It might have some hidden talents.

In a recent study in Hungary, researchers found that dogs with personality characteristics they had grouped under the "grumpy" heading were better able to learn from a stranger than more easygoing dogs.

This is admittedly a limited skill, but owners of grumpy dogs may be pleased with good news of any sort. Consider some of the characteristics that the researchers put in the grumpy category: quick to bark, snarls or snaps when disturbed, doesn't come when called, guards food to keep it from other dogs or people, active and restless. This is the dog that pet shelters say needs a very special owner. This is the dog that very special owners are forever having to explain to friends. That's Fluffy's chair, they say. That's Fluffy's rug. Actually, this is Fluffy's house, all of it. Let's go to a coffee shop.

Peter Pongracz, whose specialty at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest is the study of dog-human interactions, reported the recent findings in the journal Animals, under a long title that begins "Grumpy dogs are smart learners."

In both studies, the dog's task remained the same. Pongracz and his colleagues placed a favorite treat or toy in plain view behind a V-shaped wire fence. Instinctively, dogs would try to go straight toward the treat, which, sadly, doesn't work. The wonderful-smelling treat is right there. Why would you go away from it?

"It's quite a difficult task for a dog when they are on their own," Pongracz said.

Dogs are social learners, meaning they can see what another (dog or person) does and then learn to do the same. In the earlier work, dogs that occupied a dominant position in a multi-dog home were hopeless at learning by watching other dogs while the more submissive dogs did very well. But when a person demonstrated the solution, all the dogs performed the same.

For the recent experiment, dogs had to retrieve the object placed behind a V-shaped fence. The grumps and agreeable dogs performed the same when they had to figure out the problem by themselves, or if their owners showed them the way to get the treat.

But the grumpy dogs did noticeably better when a stranger demonstrated the way to get the object.

"They were more attentive," Pongracz said.

Cynthia Otto, director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, emphasized that breeds were not always a reliable guide to personality. Granted, the variability of dog personalities and suitability to different tasks was undeniable, she said. At the Working Dog Center, she said, "we allow dogs to choose their careers and it's based on their personalities and on their interactions and on their relationships."