Science: Friend or Foe?

The following study was sent to me recently:

The question being evaluated was the relative value of food or social interaction as a reinforcer for dogs being asked to perform a simple task (nose touch).

To look at this question, fourteen shelter dogs were evaluated - they were offered opportunities to work for either food or personal interaction (4 seconds of petting/praise) and their responses were recorded.  In addition, four "pet" dogs had the same test run with their owners, to help clarify if the results were a factor of whether or not the dog's personal relationship with the trainer was important.

It comes as no surprise to me that the dogs performed much better when food was the reinforcer rather than four seconds of personal interaction.

So far so good.

Here's where things start to go wrong:  One of the conclusions was that:  "Social interaction functioned as a low-value reinforcer." Further, for the one dog that worked just as hard for praise/petting as for food, one of their possible explanations was that the dog may have been "conditioned" (by the pairing of food with praise prior to the shelter), to value praise.

The good news is that they did point out that individual dogs might have different responses to the value of praise.

Why does this research disturb me?

First, because four seconds of petting/praising is NOT social interaction.  It is four seconds of petting/praising.  That is not genuine. We do not praise dogs (nor people)  in that manner.  When my dogs do something well, I do not praise/pet for a predetermined amount of time and then cut it off, asking for more work.  How can a dog possibly perceive that as genuine interaction?  Here's another way to ask the question: Was the researcher genuinely pleased with the dog, or simply going through the motions as dictated by the research design?  My gut tells me it's the latter; remember, scientists are expected to be detached.

Praise is GENUINE; it only works if you mean it!  If you offer it to train your dog as part of an experiment then yes, it is likely to fail.  Some dogs will take what they can get - any praise is good praise.  But most dogs accept praise from those they care about - when they believe it is real.  Really, it's not so different from people.

Second, the value of praise is built over time with a specific person and style of interaction.  If I want my dogs to work for praise, I will have to practice it - not by pairing it with food, but by finding the type of praise that works for that particular dog.  Like humans, dogs are individuals - unlike eating, social interaction is not a one size fits all proposition.  Each of my dogs works best for a different type of personal interaction, and none of them would work for praise from a stranger. It took me time to find those interactions, and with the youngest dog I'm still actively searching.  This doesn't mean it's not real, but it does mean that it's not nearly as obvious as food to use in training.

If you did this study with a toy (ball or tug) instead of food, you would almost certainly get the same results.  Most dogs do not value toys as much as food, unless you make an effort to build the value of toys.   As a rule, my young dogs prefer food to toys, but after I work on developing their love of toys, they will, without exception, choose the toys over the food.  Indeed, if I bring out food they act like they are being punished.  Note that I never paired the toys with the food; in my mind that kills the dog's natural interest in toys.  I simply use the toys in a way that brings out a dog's natural interest in playing with objects - the underlying primary motivator of pursue, grab and fight.

Is this preference for toys over food the same for all dogs?  Of course not.  Dogs will have innate interests and tendencies, just like people!  I'm sure there are dogs that care a lot about food and relatively little about personal interaction.  And there are other dogs that are highly motivated by personal  interaction or toys, but not as much by food.  It is noteworthy that the breeds of dogs most often selected for AKC performance events are also the breeds of dogs that seem to take most easily to toys and personal interaction as effective reinforcers.

I have no argument with the researcher's conclusion that food is the reinforcer of choice for training most dogs - it is certainly the easiest for the average person to use, it is effective with a high percentage of dogs, and you can get in a whole lot of repetitions in a short time.  But that conclusion does NOT support the second conclusion that the researcher came to; that genuine praise is a relatively low value reinforcer, any more than it would be correct to say that toys are a relatively low value reinforcer simply because most dogs will initially work better for food than toys.

I worry that these kinds of conclusions devalue how we view dogs.  When dogs are subjects, controlled by their desire to eat and fundamentally uninterested in humans, then we give them "object" status.  Objects have no innate value beyond whatever monetary or sentimental value we may attribute to them.  The odds that people will do ugly things to dogs go up when they are objects.  When you view dogs as selfish takers rather than as partners, you undermine the innate value of dogs and people as a team - the middle that grows between them.  It's not so different than the years when Skinner's behaviorism ruled child rearing - the children's need for cuddling and love was scoffed at since only food, warmth and a clean diaper made the radar.  Some of those babies died.  Apparently no one could quantify the need for love, so they concluded that it did not exist.

When I sit by a whelping box and watch four week old puppies wag their tails and smile up at me, I'm hard pressed to say they don't feel good in my presence.  At that age no one has given them food, so they cannot associate food with humans; the puppies simply enjoy my company.  For sure there are other explanations about why they choose to interact with me, but the one that "feels" right is that they have an innate interest in humans.  No, I've never studied it.  I've simply lived with dogs and puppies, watched them carefully, and played with them for thirty years.

I've never considered myself anti-science, so why this rant?

Because science forms the backbone of much that I believe about dogs - that training is best when dogs are working towards positives rather than away from aversives.  I believe that because it is my experience, and it happens to be backed up by research.  I want to believe that science can come to genuinely accurate conclusions that I can use when making my own decisions about how to proceed in a given circumstance with a specific dog.

I find it hugely damaging to human/canine relations to suggest that we are a secondary reinforcer; that dogs only interact with us because they are hoping for food.  My guess is that the purpose of this research was to support the use of food in training - that is good. Unfortunately, I know that many people will interpret it to mean that dogs and people cannot have mutually enjoyable social interactions - that is bad.

Sometimes I wonder if there are animal researchers who have never simply loved a dog.  If you are a scientist, then for one minute, stop with your science and sit with a few dogs.  Pet those dogs.  Watch them interact with each other and with you - no food involved.  After you do this, tell me that the only reason your dog cares is that you have been conditioned as a secondary reinforcer.



Jumpin’ Jack Premack | Our Life + Dogs

[…] grudgingly getting off the bed.  As soon as he got into his crate, I praised him effusively (and sincerely!) and immediately invited him onto the bed again, where he got to sleep for the rest of the […]


This is a very interesting discussion. If you haven’t already you might take a look at Patricia McConnell’s blog as well; she frequently holds discussions on this topic of dogs and emotions as well as discussing the latest research.


Dogs work for many reinforcers, just as humans do. The dogs are the ones that need to value the reinforcement, if we hope to influence their responses to our requests, and they are the only arbiters of what’s interesting to them. If I paid you in peanut hulls versus dollars, how long would you come to work? While you can build interest in toys for many dogs, there are some for whom they will never hold as much interest as a piece of steak. Other dogs will work for a tug or a Frisbee all day long and refuse food for quite a long time so long as the preferred “thing” is available. What really bothers me as a trainer and, hopefully, a student of dog behavior, is the pervasive desire of some trainers to require that dogs work for reinforcements that are not valuable to the dogs, then punish them when the “positive reinforcement doesn’t work.” I’ve used “chasing the squirrel” as a reinforcement for dogs that like to chase (“Come” and “sit” then you get to chase!). Premack is very powerful. I find that some studies are more designed to foster a point of view than to actually create an unbiased study. That’s why I like to look at data, not the extra verbiage in the conclusions, i.e. the “might be because…” statements.


I’m a post-grad student working on dog behaviour, cognition and emotion… Honestly, I am yet to meet a dog scientist who isn’t a wealth of information on dog behaviour and thoroughly passionate about all things dog. It is a big commitment to put 7+ years into tertiary education. I for one took a 60% pay cut to start my last 3-ish years. Many dog scientists cop it from dog owners and there is frequently controversy, often misplaced. You don’t walk into that without a deep wonder and heartfelt appreciation of everything a dog is and isn’t, and an all-abiding passion for their welfare and the human-dog bond. Often I hear comments from dog enthusiasts that suggest dog researchers don’t actually know anything about dogs, or pointing out the myriad flaws in what they have termed ‘not science’. It is tiresome and oftentimes offensive. Researching dog behaviour is quite hard. Most dogs come from their own unique environment, and there are countless breeds and breed mixes, and the list of factors that we know can affect behaviour is long and I don’t think anyone believes we have an exhaustive list yet, or even that we understand any one of those factors very well. We are all aware of these problems, but our problem is how to capture that in data. We can’t publish it if we don’t have the data. And behavioural data is notoriously complicated and variable, which means you need a lot of it to be able to find any significant patterns. And then you have to figure out how to analyse it. The statistics I’m using are intensely complicated and not really powerful enough. I’m attempting to teach myself an even more complicated method of analysis because I badly want to lay down the foundations to start capturing some of the richness in dog behaviour that we all know exists but can’t do anything with. And it will all be for nothing if I can’t get dog owners everywhere to contribute to the data collection. Data is currency, here. I can’t access enough dogs on my own to make a difference.

So in defence of dog scientists, yes, we do love dogs. Yes, we realise there are a lot of factors we can’t capture in data at this point. No, that does not mean we should not try to make sense of what we can capture. Science is not friend or foe. It is what you make of it. You can produce the most thoroughly, carefully defined piece of work and people out there will take it the wrong way and misquote you. It’s something we just have to live with.

Ron Watson

I share your on again off again relationship to science when it is brought up in dog training conversations. Great dog training stands outside of science at many times.

If it can’t be readily and reliably reproduced by another researcher, it is not science. The skill and acumen of the researcher cannot be taken into account or it is not science. I look at dog training as an artform based on scientific principles of learning.

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