Petting vs. Praise: Which Does a Dog Like Best?

Do dogs prefer petting or verbal praise?

People who share their lives with dogs want to make their canine companions happy. It's usually pretty clear the types of things that make dogs happy: walks, car rides, and sniffing things outside seem to be near the top of the list. But did you ever wonder whether your dog prefers you to pet him or praise him? Some researchers wondered just that, and they set out to discover the answer.

The Study Structure

In order to learn whether dogs preferred petting or praise, researchers knew that they would have to control for certain variables like whether the person involved was a family member or a stranger. After all, maybe dogs preferred one thing from a familiar person and another from a stranger. So the study was set up like this:

Three groups of dogs and people were used in the study:

A dog would be taken into a room where two people sat on chairs in different areas. One person would provide petting if the dog came near, the other would provide verbal praise. The dogs were initially "introduced" to each person and shown the type of attention that each one would provide. They were then allowed off-leash so they could spend time with whichever person they preferred.

The dog's preference would be measured by how much time he spent in proximity to each person. Proximity was defined by whether the dog was within a certain measured distance from a person, and the person only provided the praise or petting if the dog was within that proximity.

After five minutes, the two people in the room would change which reward they provided. So the person who had been petting the dog in the first five minutes provided vocal praise during the second five minutes. This allowed researchers to determine whether a dog's preference had to do with the person or the reward that person provided.

Study Results

All dogs tested showed a preference for petting over vocal praise. What was especially interesting was that this was true even for owned dogs when their owner was the one providing praise: in those instances, the dogs showed preference for the stranger who provided petting over the owner who provided praise.

Based on these results, researchers decided to run a second study. They wanted to know if dogs would stay close to a person providing verbal praise if that was the only alternative. Different dogs were used for this second study; some owned and some shelter dogs. They were each brought into a room where a person (either a stranger or the owner) provided petting, verbal praise, or no interaction.

The results of this second study were that dogs preferred petting over verbal praise. They also preferred petting to no interaction, and they showed no preference for vocal praise over no interaction. So dogs did not stay near a person giving them vocal praise any longer than they stayed near a person who wasn't interacting with them at all.

Dogs also did not show satiety for petting. That means that, no matter how many sessions the dog had with an assistant who was providing petting, they continued to stay in close proximity with that person; they did not have enough of the petting and move on.

What Do These Study Results Mean?

The results of this study indicate that dogs don't immediately place much value on verbal praise from humans. In order for such a reward to mean something to the dog, it must be conditioned into him. He must be taught that praise is valuable by having it connected to something else that he already finds valuable. One such thing, based on this study, would be petting. During training sessions, verbal praise rewards would be paired with petting. The petting would be gradually decreased to the point that verbal praise produced the same favorable response in the dog.

So, Do Dogs Like Petting Better than Anything?

The researchers conducting these studies were struck by the obvious preference that dogs had for petting over verbal praise. It made them wonder what dogs would prefer when something else that dogs seem to love was studied against petting.

A new study was conducted in the same manner as the previous two. Either shelter or owned dogs were brought into a room where there were two assistants waiting. One provided petting and the other provided food.

It may be no surprise to you to learn that dogs preferred food to petting. There were some variables. For instance, if the food was not provided constantly but rather ever minute or less, dogs had a tendency to wander away and prefer the petting. This was variable among dogs, however. Also, if a particular dog had not received much social interaction in the recent past, he often preferred petting over food when the food wasn't provided very often.

The results of these studies are interesting and tell us that, when training dogs, petting and food may be more effective than verbal praise. Also, it tells us that our verbal commands need to be linked initially to either petting or treats to condition the dog to respond to the verbal commands.

Using the results of this study and providing some extra petting to your dog probably won't be a hardship; humans love petting dogs, too.

Works Cited

  1. Erica N. Feuerbacher1, *. a. (2014, March 18). Most domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer food to petting: population, context, and schedule effects in concurrent choice. Retrieved from Wiley Online Library: DOI: 10.1002/jeab.81
  2. Erica N. Feuerbachera, C. D. (2015, Jan.). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures. Retrieved from Science Direct: DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019

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