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.




I should have mentioned that I have a degree in zoology and behavioral sciences and worked as a zoo keeper for an AZA accredited zoo for four years and still have many close friends in the biz, but started working with dogs so that one day I might actually pay off my student loans. That is my animal training foundation and they hammer in that absolutely no anthropomorphism. I always find it interesting in the dog world the idea of dogs having emotion. I was always taught that emotions in animals is a dangerous concept, and in exotics more specifically. I was taught that it is a spectrum of stress, not all stress being bad stress (in the wild obviously they experience stressors frequently). I approach clients like a zoo keeper and solve problems like a zoo keeper to this day.

I agree though, my dogs deff seek me out for affections, but again I spend all day everyday aware of my relationship with them. However, I see every day dogs blow off their owner’s affections out in public….and I think it is a disservice to not expose your average dog owner to science…I have no agenda, just to accomplish whatever task I am being paid to do for the individual dog/human team.

Im not trying to start anything, had read the article and was looking for a forum discussing it. It was an interesting study, I thought, as I think most are. Most animal experiments have flaws, it is hard to control all factors of animal and human behavior, again the exciting challenges of working with animals and people!


I would love to discuss this further but I think this is the wrong forum. If you add me as a friend on facebook, we could start a thread there – I know that my friends are heavy in both trainers and scientists. I don’t know if people will behave, but heck….it might be worth a try.


I remember reading a book (in German) by a German scientist a decade or two ago that purported to debunk a lot of the “lassie come home” type myths about dogs. It was a well-written book that tried to explain why dogs were acting on instinct/drive rather than out of an emotional basis.

What I remember most about the book however was the tongue-in-check epilogue — in which the researcher (PhD biologist or zoologist, don’t remember exactly) said that none of his foregoing observations about dogs applied to dachshunds. He himself had a dachshund and they were smart and loyal, etc., and part of the family, no matter what. I found it really interesting that this author, after laying out a straight “scientific” case, was able to say that his emotional reality in living with his dog made him question his scientific findings — or at least accept the ambiguity between his emotional and his intellectual reality.


THis is what makes you such a great trainer, balancing science with psychological or emotional needs (both human and canine). I think a fine example of this in my own dogs was when I adopted my 2nd dog (the Siberian, Juno) for my GSD mix Loki. For a long time at the beginning, I thought Juno was anti-human social, not interested in play and even had low food motivation in the beginning. We used high tasting treats at first to garner a relationship. But let me tell you, human anti-social was the last thing from this dog’s mind, no matter how much she tried to ignore or run away from us. Over time, as I worked both dogs independently and together as a team, in at home games (and games YOU taught me and Loki), she would do HER BEST “I’m am so cute, leave that GSD alone and get over here and give me some attention NOW” behaviors (even if i had no food). So if i were casually working Loki (not a formal session or anything like that) or even just giving him a pet, she would roll over, show her belly, let her tongue hang out, she’d do her “sit pretty,” play bow, whatever it took for me to leave Loki and go to her. Yes, indeed, she became a “hussy for human attention.” (at least from me) I think that’s probably the ultimate you can ask for any dog. One who really wants to be with you and is maybe even a little jealous but acts in a socially acceptable way on that jealousy (versus being pushy or naughty).

RE: the comment above about the “Big Chain Co.” I look at it as a variety of people own dogs for a variety of reasons and have a limit on how much time/energy they really want to invest. For you and me (and most on this list) watching and interacting with dogs and dog behavior is fascinating and rewarding psychologically for us. People’s lives are so busy with work and family’s and their own children, they have little focus for observing -and i mean REALLY observing-dog behavior and communication, let alone the energy to put in to getting the dog bonded in such a way quickly. I spend so much of my time with both my dogs, they really are a team with me and I haven’t fixed every behavioral issue with Loki, I know exactly why and what makes him behave as he does. If he were with a person with half the time I give him and half the interest, I’m not so sure he’d do as well as his is now. For the first few years, even with the time I gave him, I was still perplexed by his behavior. After 4 years, lots of time investment and actual INTEREST, I feel I get him and our relationship is such a strong partnership now.

Some people just want a dog for very superficial reasons and even if the time was availble, they have little interest in knowing more than teaching in a logical (scientific) way. This is why I never really feel so strongly about one method of teaching over another. Because I really look at it as “working with the dog in front of you” (what works best for that dog) with a balance of what work best for the handler too (how much time he/she can invest and what type of partnership s/he looks for with that dog). Hopefully there’s something that fits both dog and handler in a healthy way.

Connie Kaplan

This is an interesting post. I am still learning a lot about playing with my dog, but I know she likes playing with me and would rather do a lot of play activities over food for a reward.

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