Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The role of age in learning, memory and logical thinking
September 21 2016
Old dogs CAN learn new tricks, but the way that they learn may be different than when they were younger. So concludes a recent study called “Aging effects on discrimination learning, logical reasoning and memory in pet dogs”. The study was conducted on 95 pet Border Collies who ranged in age from 5 months to over 13 years old. Researchers purposely chose dogs of the same breed in order to minimize any differences in performance that were unrelated to age.
Starting out with a spoiler, older dogs did worse than younger dogs on one of the tests, they did better on a second test, and there was no effect of age in the third test.
For the first test, dogs were trained to associate four images on a touch screen with a positive experience—receiving a treat. So, if the dogs touched these images on the screen, they received a treat. Another four images were associated with a time out, meaning that touching any one of them resulted in no opportunities to touch images for a brief period of time. After being taught these associations, dogs were tested with a pair of images that always included one randomly selected “treat” image and one randomly selected “time out” image. Sessions consisted of 30 tests with a pair of images. Dogs were considered to have mastered this task when they chose the right image 20 out of 30 times for four out of five sessions in a row. There was a linear relationship between age and the number of sessions it took dogs to learn this task, meaning that younger dogs learned it faster than older dogs.
In the second test, dogs were again shown a pair of images on the touchscreen, but only one of those images was one that the dog had seen before. In each case, the familiar image was one that the dog had learned had a negative association because it led to a time out if touched. The dogs could therefore make an inference that the unfamiliar image was the correct choice and would lead to a treat if touched. (These trials were interspersed in sessions that included pairs of images just as in the first test in which both images were familiar to the dogs.) In this experiment, the older dogs were, the more likely they were to choose the correct image, meaning that older dogs were better at solving this puzzle than younger dogs.
The final test in this experiment looked at long-term memory. Dogs were tested at least 6 months after the other parts of the study were completed to determine how well they retained what they had learned. When presented with pairs of images just as they had been in test one, over 90 percent of the dogs performed better than chance level (at least 22 correct out of 32) and there was no effect of age on the success rate.
This study shows that there are differences in cognitive abilities between older and younger dogs, but not that dogs of certain ages have better abilities than dogs of other ages. The way that age affects performance depends on the specific task dogs are asked to do.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
September 17 2016
Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.
Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.
I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.
Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl
You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.
Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl
My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.
If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
September 15 2016
The saying, “Love me, love my dog” implies that your dog is a problem—something negative in the whole package of You. Could anything be more ridiculous? While it’s easy to assume that our dogs make us more lovable and even more desirable (I mean, really, how could it be otherwise?), is there any evidence for this point of view?
The answer is yes! Multiple scientific studies—extensions of research into dogs’ many social effects—have concluded that dogs enhance human attractiveness. Scientists have known for some time that people are more attentive to and socially engaged with those accompanied by a dog than those who are not. We also know that bystanders are more helpful toward people with dogs. Other studies have extended our understanding of the canine influence on human social activity by investigating more personal, intimate types of behavior in the areas of courtship, dating and romance.
In one study, having a dog with him enhanced a man’s success when he asked women out. In this experiment, the man asked 240 women for their phone number— 120 times while accompanied by a dog and 120 times without one. He followed the exact same script whether the dog was with him or not.
The difference the dog made in his success rate was astounding. When he gave his pitch without a dog, 11 out of 120 women (9.2 percent) were sufficiently charmed to give him their number. When he was with a dog, 34 out of 120 (28.3 percent) complied with his request. With a dog, his success rate was three times as high. Never mind a wingman— if you want to meet someone, you need a wing-dog!
Studies have shown that people’s helpfulness and social interactions are prompted most strongly by light-colored dogs and puppies. An adult black dog was part of this experiment; researchers speculated that if the man had asked women for their phone numbers while accompanied by a light-colored puppy, his success might have been even higher. (Guéguen and Ciccotti 2008)
Why do dogs (of any kind) increase our appeal? To most dog lovers, explaining how dogs can make someone more attractive is pretty straightforward: people are more attractive if they have dogs because they have dogs! Quite simple —also quite circular. As it happens, there are a number of other, more satisfactory explanations.
Many people report that those with dogs seem safer, friendlier and more approachable; by being a conversation starter, the dog may also ease social awkwardness.
Interacting with companion animals can result in changes in our oxytocin and other hormone levels, and that may affect the opinion others have of us as well. Those who feel a rush of oxytocin in the presence of a dog may transfer the warm, fuzzy feelings to the person with the dog. So, dogs may make people attractive by prompting emotions that are extended to them by association.
This may not be good for our ego, but it can still be good for our love life!
Does This Dog Make Me Look Cute?
Another study surveyed 1,210 people on Match.com who owned pets—both cats and dogs—to learn if and how pets influenced their views about potential dates. One of the main findings was that dogs had a greater positive impact on the perceived level of attractiveness than did cats. (Gray et al. 2015)
Interestingly enough, there was also a gender component. The study concluded that dogs make men attractive to women to a greater degree than they make women attractive to men. Women were more likely to find someone attractive because they had a dog, and were also more likely to find a photo of a dog in an online dating profile a turn-on. Not surprisingly, more men than women ’fessed up to using a pet to attract a potential date. (I know of no studies investigating how dogs affect attractiveness between members of the same sex, but it would be intriguing to see what patterns emerge once that area has been explored.)
Compelling biological forces suggest the reasons for this gender difference, and there’s a large body of work on the subject. The basic theory is that, because women must commit a large amount of energy and effort to produce offspring (pregnancy and often greater caretaking responsibilities for the children), they need to be more selective about who they choose as a mate. Men, biologically speaking, are capable of producing lots of offspring with a minimum of, um, effort, so they can afford to be less discerning in their choices.
Of course, there are many exceptions, and in today’s world, the division of child-care responsibilities is often more equitable than in the past, but our evolutionary heritage still influences our behavior. Women are often attracted to men who have something to offer to potential offspring.
Having a pet may be a plus for several reasons. The expense of a pet may be a variation on finding a man in an expensive car attractive. If it demonstrates wealth, it could be appealing, since a lot of evolutionary research suggests that females prefer males with substantial resources to devote to offspring. The social skills observed when a man interacts with his dog may also add to his allure. Just like men with resources to share, those capable of emotional commitment and those with strong parenting skills are more likely to contribute to the successful raising of children. Dogs can enhance perceptions of all of these qualities.
Although the effects of having a dog were different for the two groups, the majority of men and women surveyed said that finding out that a date had adopted a pet made that person seem more attractive. (Cat guardians were less likely to feel this way than dog guardians.) As everyone in this study was a pet guardian, the increased attractiveness of someone with a pet may simply reflect our natural inclination to like people with whom we have things in common.
The youngest people in the survey— those in their 20s—were more likely than members of any other age group to express an attraction to someone because of a pet. They were also more likely to judge a date based on that person’s reactions to their own pet than were members of other age groups. Perhaps being a pet guardian makes these younger men and women seem more grown-up, mature or responsible, which could be a plus for younger people.
Another explanation for this strong age effect is the growing trend toward considering dogs to be members of the family. An increasing number of people describe their dogs (and cats) this way, and it’s possible that dogs influence mate choice by revealing a person’s emphasis on family. Compared with older people, who may be new to the concept or may never have fully embraced it, the youngest people in this study may have always placed this level of importance on their pets.
As it happens, Bark readers of all ages seem to be more likely than the general population to consider dogs as family members. In reply to a blog post asking about this, two-thirds of the answers used words that implied familial relationships: dogs were their babies, or they were their dogs’ moms and dads.
Dad or Cad?
Another study warns women to be aware of how dogs influence their views. Men can be attractive because they seem romantic, caring and interested in long-term attachments; in other words, they would make good dads. Another type of man is more of a cad—dangerous, exciting and into chasing women. Women are often attracted to cads for short-term relationships and to dads as long-term partners, but dogs can interfere with that classification.
Women taking part in this study were provided with descriptions of both cadlike and dad-like men. They said that overall, they preferred to marry the dads, but many expressed an interest in shortterm affairs with the cads. These same characters were then described to women with only one detail changed—they were now all dog guardians. Dogs made both dads and cads more attractive, but the difference was greater for the cads. In fact, if cads had dogs, they were even more appealing than dads with dogs.
Dogs appear to supply cads with the perfect combination of traits; attractive, exciting cads seem to have had their bad qualities erased by having a dog. The potential for manipulation is obvious: a man exploiting the shortterm cad-like strategy can block negative perceptions of his style by having a dog. As the authors of the research study write, “Thus, a cad with a dog is especially attractive to women, as they may believe they are getting the best of both worlds.” (Tifferet et al. 2013)
It’s wonderful to know that dogs can make men, and, to a lesser extent, women, more attractive. Now, if only scientists could find evidence that dog hair has the same powerful effect!
News: Guest Posts
They top her list of family members
September 13 2016
I want to be with family, “Annie, Max, and you know, the rest of our family . . . “ So said Rita, my 84-year old neighbor and very dear friend, a few days before passing away a few weeks ago. All of us who understood Rita were entertained by the order in which she named her most precious loved ones. Annie is her dog and Max is her daughter and son-in-law’s dog.
Since so many human members of Rita’s family are dog lovers, they took no offense at how important the dogs were to her. The feeling was mutual, too. During her final days in hospice care at her daughter and son-in-law’s house, Annie and Max watched over her. They only left her bed for bathroom breaks and meals. Both dogs snuggled with her and slept next to her, offering the comfort of their company in her final days.
It’s impossible to say, of course, whether or not the dogs knew that she was dying. We can only speculate, and it’s certainly a possibility. What is clear is that they loved her and wanted to be with her. It’s also obvious that these dogs were giving her an immeasurable gift of love, and that their loving attention to Rita gave the rest of her family a sense of peace, too. The contentment she experienced because of the constant company of dogs as she declined and died was a blessing to them, too.
Have you observed dogs unwilling to leave the death bed of a loved one?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s worth it, but taking care of dogs is hard
September 10 2016
It’s fun to share our lives with dogs—most of the time. Sometimes, though, having a dog feels like work, and not just when there is a real crisis such as a dog suffering from a major illness or injury. The regular daily trials and tribulations of dog guardianship require plenty of opportunities for sacrifice and hard effort.
All people find challenges in different aspects of living with and caring for a dog. For me, it’s the pressure to get home to them. Don’t get me wrong—I certainly want to get home to dogs, but the feeling that I have to get home by a certain time can be stressful. Many of us live with a bit of a canine-imposed curfew. There have been many times when I have wanted to run an errand or meet a friend for even a brief time immediately after work, but I need to head home first to let dogs out, give them exercise and feed them. I don’t like the way going home to dogs can feel like an imposition on my freedom. Most of the time, it’s not a big deal. It’s just that from time to time, it feels like a drag to do what I know is right for dogs when that doesn’t serve my immediate desires.
There are a lot of people whose big struggle is dealing with all the dog hair. Many of us may feel like no outfit is complete without dog hair. However, fewer of us believe that no home decorating scheme is complete without massive quantities of fur everywhere. Some dogs shed constantly and in large quantities, but even dogs who only donate their fur sparingly can put a strain on household cleanliness.
Perhaps the most common complaint about having a dog is picking up poop. Whether this involves picking it up in bags on walks or regular clean-ups of the yard, I hear a lot of complaints about this part of having a dog. I know of nobody, including, myself, who considers this chore associated with being a dog guardian to be anything but a big, unpleasant nuisance.
Having a dog is worth any and all of the trouble that comes with it, but that doesn’t mean every moment is pure joy. What aspect of having a dog feels the most like work to you?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
The influence of each species’ feeding ecology
September 8 2016
Humans tend to be risk-averse, which is often illustrated by our decision when offered either $100 or the opportunity for a 50-50 shot at receiving either $200 or nothing. In general, humans go for the sure thing. We are not, as a species, risk-prone, or we would gamble on the shot at getting the bigger payoff.
It turns out that a number of studies across a broad range of species have shown that how a species responds to risk is predictable based on their feeding ecology. Animals who depend on erratic, ephemeral food sources, such as meat that they hunt or fruits that are patchy and only ripe for a brief time, tend to be risk-prone. They are willing to gamble on the big payoff. Species that eat diverse types of food or food that is more reliably available, such as vegetation, are risk-averse.
Some of our primate relatives are like us, and some are the opposite. For example, bonobos and lemurs (who both eat a very diverse diet that is mainly vegetarian) are risk-averse like us, choosing a sure thing of lower value over a chance at something better. Chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys—both meat and patchy fruit eaters—are different, being risk-prone and choosing the option that may yield a big reward but could leave then empty-handed. This pattern has appeared in closely-related species birds, too, where those who eat insects are risk-prone, while species who eat seeds are risk-averse.
Scientists haven’t fully explored how widespread this pattern of feeding ecology predicting risk-taking behavior is, but wolves and dogs are an interesting test case. These two species diverged quite recently in an evolutionary sense, but their feeding ecologies differ greatly. Wolves are primarily hunters and dogs are mainly scavengers. Hunting has a high failure rate, but the rewards of a big kill are enormous. In contrast, the source of food for the vast majority of dogs worldwide is human refuse, which tends to be available far more regularly.
In a recent study called “Exploring Differences in Dogs’ and Wolves’ Preference for Risk in a Foraging Task” scientists investigated whether wolves and dogs conform to the pattern seen across so many other species. Based on their different feeding ecologies, they predicted that compared with each other, wolves would be risk-prone and dogs would be risk-averse. The study was done at Wolf Science Centre in Austria, using dogs and wolves who were raised and live at the facility and have had the same overall experiences there.
The subjects of the study were trained to choose either a bowl that contained a dry pellet of food or a bowl that had a fifty percent chance of containing a piece of meat and a fifty percent chance of holding a stone. After each choice, the subject was given the contents of the bowl. All the wolves and dogs in the study were subject to tests to confirm that they understood the choice they were making and also to confirm that they preferred the meat to the dry food pellet.
The researchers found that the pattern of risk-taking seen in other species also applied to wolves and dogs. As expected, wolves were more risk-prone than dogs. However, there is more to this study than that simple conclusion. Wolves learned the system faster than the dogs, and the researchers acknowledge that they may have understood it better than the dogs. Additionally, dogs’ preference for the meat versus dry food pellet was not as strong as it was for wolves. Therefore, the risk of losing out and getting nothing for the chance to get something only a little better than a food pellet may not have been worth it to dogs. There was greater variation among individual dogs in risk-taking strategy compared with wolves, who were more similar in their choices, so it’s possible that there are dogs who are risk-prone as well as dogs who are risk-averse. (Dogs made the risky choice from 38 to 76 percent of the time, while wolves took the risky option 70 to 95 percent of the time.)
Overall, despite the conclusions made from the data in this study, direct comparisons of the choices made by these two species may require further study. It would be very interesting to learn more about decisions to take risks by dogs and wolves in a study with more than seven of each species, though I realize possible subjects for a study such as this are limited. It would also be fascinating to know about the decisions foxes and coyotes would make if presented with the same choices. Comparative research that include dogs as one species among many allow us to learn a great deal about how their evolutionary history and ecology have affected their behavior. It’s one of many ways that we can deepen our understanding of the animals who share our homes and live in our hearts.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
What you say and how you say it both matter
August 31 2016
Humans use both words and the intonation of speech to decipher the meaning of language, and it turns out that our dogs do, too. In a research paper called “Neural mechanisms for lexical processing in dogs” scientists investigated how dogs process the meaning of language. They found that dogs’ brains have even more in common with humans’ brains than previously thought. (It’s not clear when we will collectively stop being surprised by this, but I hope we always remain excited about new evidence to explain why we feel that dogs are kindred spirits.)
In this study, dogs who have been trained to remain still while their brain activity is recorded listened to recordings of their trainers talking. There were four types of recordings: 1) words of praise spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, 2) words of praise spoken with a neutral intonation, 3) neutral words spoken with intonation typically associated with praise, and 4) neutral words spoken with a neutral intonation.
Researchers analyzed the brain activity of the dogs in response to each of the recordings, and came to several conclusions about the way that dogs respond to words and the intonation of human speech. The dogs processed the vocabulary in the left hemisphere of their brains, which is where humans also process the meaning of words. The dogs processed the intonation of the words separately, in a different region of the brain. Just as humans do, dogs processed the intonation of human speech in the right hemisphere of their brain. Dogs also process sounds that convey emotion without words in this same region of the brain’s right hemisphere.
Dogs process both words and the intonation of human speech to decipher meaning. Just as humans do, they process these two aspects of speech separately, then integrate them to determine the full meaning of what was said. Only the praise that was spoken like praise—higher pitched than normal speech and with more variation in pitch—activated the reward centers of dogs’ brains. Though they may understand words of praise said in any manner, it only makes dogs happy to hear us praise them when we do it with proper feeling.
This research does more than reveal yet another similarity in the way that human and dog brains process information. It also suggests that the ability to connect a word to a meaning did not develop with the evolution of spoken language. Rather, it is a more ancient ability that can be made use of in the context of the human-dog relationship to link specific sounds to specific meanings.
The take away messages from this research are that dogs process two parts of spoken language—words and intonation—the same way that humans do and if you want to make your dogs happy, you have to praise them like you mean it!
There’s so much “funny” out there
August 30 2016
We are taking care of a puppy whose tag has contact information on one side and says “Have your people call my people” on the other. It so accurately reflects the way many dog lovers view their position in the world—as the dogs’ people.
That tag is not the only amusing dog phrase to catch my attention in recent weeks. While traveling in Sri Lanka this past summer, I saw a bumper sticker proclaiming, “I like big mutts and I cannot lie.” Some of the windows of the vehicle were smeared all over with what I’ve come to learn is called “nose art”. The dog was no Picasso, but he was very productive, having created more art than most dogs ever will.
Most recently, I found myself chuckling over a dog-related saying at a client’s house. She had a prominently displayed wooden sign that read, “You’re not really drinking alone if your dog is home.” Though I myself lack any “wine-appreciation” genes, I knew right away that I would enjoy working with this woman.
Is your home, car or dog adorned with a canine-themed phrase that makes you laugh?
Interactive displays for canines by experiential artist Dominic Wilcox
August 26 2016
More Than insurance company commissioned British designer Dominic Wilcox to create a contemporary art exhibit for dogs. It is part of an ongoing effort by the company to improve the physical and mental health of dogs by encouraging people to play with them more.
One goal was the development of an exhibit like those in the best science and children’s museums that stimulate visitors and entice them to interact with the displays. Another part of Wilcox’s assignment was to come up with an exhibit that would fit in at any of the world’s best museums of modern and contemporary art.
The displays in “Play More” are varied and focus on different senses. There are paintings in colors within the dog’s visual spectrum and hanging at just the right height for them to view easily. The Watery Wonder exhibit is a series of fountains in water bowls with the water jetting from one bowl to another. Cruising Canines simulates an open-window car ride by blowing a fan to send the scents of raw meat and old shoes to the dogs seated behind cutouts in a two-dimensional car. Dinnertime Dreams is a 10-foot representation of a dog bowl filled with 1000 balls that each resemble dog kibble. Catch is a video of a Frisbee™ disk bouncing around a screen and consistently held many dogs’ attention.
Two dogs admire “Drumstick Park,” a park scene painted by Robert Nicol and placed at canine eye-level.
“Cruising Canines” simulates an open car window with a giant fan wafting favorite canine scents (raw meat and old shoes) through the air.
A dog is captivated with “Catch,” a multimedia installation that simulates a Frisbee bouncing around a screen.
Dog pals posing with the 10-foot wide “Dinnertime Dreams”—filled with dog food shaped balls.
The exhibit’s designer Dominic Wlicox and friend next to one of the exhibit’s meat-inspired sculptures.
It’s a daunting task to create a series of interactive displays for canines to enjoy that are also contemporary works of art worthy of display in a modern art museum. I think Wilcox succeeded, but you can judge for yourself in this video.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
August 24 2016
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
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