Praise or Petting?

Have you ever wondered if your dog is truly reinforced by your petting? Do you think that your dog would find your petting to be more reinforcing than that of a stranger? And what about praise? Is it a relevant and sought-after reinforcer for dogs? The answers may surprise you…

In a recent study conducted by Erica N. Feuerbacher and Clive D. L. Wynne of the University of Florida (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3408722/pdf/jeab-98-01-105.pdf) with different breeds involving shelter dogs and dogs living in homes the researchers found that petting was a reinforcer for all dogs. What’s more, the dogs in the study did not satiate from being petted.

Surprisingly so, the dogs that had an owner did not favor the owner’s attention from a complete stranger when it came to petting! I know, kind of heart-breaking huh? 🙁

Another interesting finding of the study was that shelter dogs whom one would assume are more deprived of reinforcers than dogs in a home environment would consider any positive interaction with a person a reinforcer- in the case of the study being verbal praise. But to the surprise of the researchers this was not at all true. Even for the shelter dogs in the study, verbal praise was “considered equal in value” as no social- interaction at all.

So why do these findings matter? I think for several reasons. First, I think it is so easy for people to make assumptions about anything in general and in particular about dogs. If we only go by our “hunch” or what appears to be “common sense” we can be persuaded to think of something as “true” when it is not.

On the other hand, such findings point to some of the intricacies and dog preferences when it comes to relating to us.

From a practical standpoint, knowing now that dogs in general disregard verbal praise as a reinforcer and much rather have tactile contact, can help us in delivering something that the dog truly wants. Now, even though per the study verbal praise is apparently no more than “noise coming from our mouth” to dogs it does not mean that your dog or a dog in particular cannot learn (or has not already learn) to enjoy verbal praise.

The trick here is to classically pair (building an association) a reinforcer such as food, games, etc. and petting with verbal praise. The order of events do matter however: The verbal praise should be followed immediately (but not at the same time) by something your dog really likes. In time and with perhaps hundreds of these pairings you can sing to your dog and have him dancing with joy!

Another important aspect of understanding reinforcers and using them correctly is that the more reinforcers your dog has the easier it will be for you to find the right motivator at any given time. For example, some dogs just do not like to “play” or interact with toys, for them it is all about food (or something else). Now, if we teach our dogs to enjoy toys and playing with us we can effectively use this when food is not available, the dog is sick, etc.

A final consideration regarding petting and it being a reinforcer for dogs is that we must take into account the past experience a dog has had with petting or the lack thereof. So all things being equal, we can correctly assume that a dog that has not been socialized at an early age with human contact will not necessarily find this reinforcing and it can in fact find this kind of social interaction aversive. As a general rule I never pet a dog (with the exception of my own) if the dog does not approach me first and does not shy away from my hand.

My take-home message from this study is to use petting more as a reinforcer with my own dogs and when appropriate with my client’s dogs in addition, of course, to other valuable motivators.