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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


17 May 2015

Less Talk More Touch: What's Your Dog Saying to You?

Guest post by: Erica Feuerbacher, PhD, of Carroll College Anthrozoology Program (Facebook)
via Flickr creative commons

Hi Mia and Julie,

Like you and your readers, much of my energy is devoted to my dogs’ happiness. I can identify a plethora of things they do that make me happy and I want to know what makes them happy; I explore this in my research. What types of human interactions do dogs prefer and under what circumstances? Knowing this might help us understand how to produce and maintain better bonds with our dogs. 

Two common ways of interacting with our dogs are petting or verbally praising them. My collaborator, Clive Wynne (@caninecognition), and I decided to ask dogs which of these interactions they prefer. 

Schematic and dimensions of the room arrangement for concurrent choice procedures. The drawing is approximately to scale and the room dimensions based on those of the room at the shelter.

We gave dogs a choice between two concurrently available options and measured whether they spent more time with one than the other—and how much more—as common way to measure preference. One assistant provided petting whenever the dog was near her, and another assistant provided vocal praise whenever the dog was near her. The dog was free to interact (or not interact) with either person for ten minutes. To test whether the dog really preferred the specific interaction and not just that specific person, we had the two assistants switch interactions halfway through the session. That is, the person providing petting switched to providing only vocal praise and vice versa. If the dog preferred petting in the first five minutes of the session, would the dog switch to the other person who was now providing petting? 

 Twinky, a shelter dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the left, but soon alternates to the assistant on the right who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting.

We tested shelter dogs and two groups of owned dogs: in one group both assistants were strangers, which was the same as the shelter dogs, but in the second group, one assistant was the dog’s owner. This allowed us to test whether the owner providing these interactions would change dogs’ preferences.

Across the board, dogs preferred petting to vocal praise. This difference was most pronounced in shelter dogs (out of the first five-minute period, dogs spent an average of 3.5 minutes with the petting person and only 7 seconds with vocal praise person). This result, however, held up across groups, even when the owner was one of the assistants and even when the owner was the assistant providing vocal praise. Additionally, when the assistant providing petting switched to vocal praise, dogs left …some immediately! When they found the other person was now providing petting, they stuck with her. Dogs even left their owner when the owner switched to vocal praise! 

Patsy, a shelter dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the right but soon alternates to the assistant on the left who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting. 
Dogs clearly prefer petting to vocal praise, but what if vocal praise was the only game in town? Maybe vocal praise is good as long as there isn’t something better available. We tested this by giving dogs only one alternative at a time and measuring how much time they spent when the person provided petting and when the person provided vocal praise. The results were the same: dogs remained with the person providing petting but spent very little time when that person provided only vocal praise. In fact, we found that dogs spent as little time with the person for vocal praise as when the person was ignoring the dog! To dogs, vocal praise was equivalent to being ignored. On the other hand, we also tested dogs that received eight three-minute sessions of petting and those dogs spent almost all their time with the person providing petting, even in Session 8. There was no evidence that dogs get tired of petting; as long as you are willing to pet them, they are willing to be petted!

Our results point to the importance of touch or our pets and for us. Petting is an easy way to relate to a dog and help build a relationship. One thing to note is that in our study dogs were free to approach or leave the assistant—that is we never forced the dogs to receive petting. So, as much as dogs like petting, don’t rush out and pet every dog you meet! You need to allow the dog to come to you to be petted and to leave when it wants. 

Scorch, an owned dog, receiving petting from the assistant on the left who is Scorch's owner. When his owner switches from providing petting to providing only vocal praise, he soon alternates to the assistant on the right, a stranger, who previously provided vocal praise but now provides petting.
It was surprising that dogs did not prefer vocal praise—even when it was the only interaction available. We often get the comment from people, “Well, my dog loves when I talk to him!” We have to remind them that we only praised the dogs whereas most people praise the dog and simultaneously do something else really fun (like petting). We also praised the dogs for a long time—as long as the dog stayed near the assistant. This is harder than it sounds and worth trying—a few dogs did spend a good amount of time with the vocal praise assistant and that poor assistant had to praise the dog for few minutes on end!

Now it's your turn... Put YOUR dog's preferences under the Microscope
You can certainly do a mini version of our research at home: talk to your dog for an extended period without doing anything else—don’t grab the leash or pet him or reach for a treat. Does he stick around? Does he wander off? Dogs do learn to love certain words, like “walk,” “cookie,” or “good girl,” but those are only meaningful because they are usually associated with other good things—like going for a walk, getting a treat, or being petted.

What I enjoy about my research is it gives us the dog’s perspective and asks the dog, “what do you like?” rather than assuming we know what they like. Our results regarding vocal praise are really interesting given how much we talk to our dogs; perhaps all our chattering is more for us than for them and if you really want to communicate with your dog, you should try petting. 

~ ~ ~

Dr. Erica Feuerbacher joined the faculty of the Anthrozoology program at Carroll College in 2014, after completing her Ph.D. at the University of Florida in the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab. Her research goal is to enhance our understanding of the dog-human relationship to improve the welfare of both.       
Further reading:
Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice proceduresBehavioural processes110, 47-59.[Open Access PDF until Jan 2016]

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). Most domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer food to petting: population, context, and schedule effects in concurrent choiceJournal of the experimental analysis of behavior101(3), 385-405.

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2012). RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND‐REARED WOLVESJournal of the experimental analysis of behavior98(1), 105-129.

Udell, M. A., Lord, K., Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2014). A Dog’s-Eye View of Canine Cognition. In Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior (pp. 221-240). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.

© 2015 Erica Feuerbacher | Do You Believe in Dog?
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-5 - See more at:
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-59 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.08.019 - See more at:
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures Behavioural Processes, 110, 47-5 - See more at:

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