Now where’s my treat?

A study tests whether dogs and hand-reared wolves prefer food or social interaction as a reward.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Trainers often advise owners to use treats to train their dogs, but some owners want to phase them out as fast as they can. Shouldn’t a dog be prepared to work for just verbal praise and affection? That’s the question asked in a recent study by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne – and they didn’t just test dogs, but wolves too!

A brindle boxer is happy to receive a treat
Photo: LarsTuchel / Shutterstock

The question is interesting for practical reasons, since it’s useful to know how to motivate a dog if you want to train one. But it’s a very interesting question for another reason too. Some scientists have suggested that dogs are uniquely tuned in to human contact; in other words, that in the process of evolving from wolves, dogs have developed special abilities to read human emotions and communication. If this is the case, then social contact with humans should be a valuable reward in training sessions with dogs, but not wolves.

The study involved five separate experiments, four with dogs and one with hand-reared wolves. Two different types of dog were included: those who lived in homes with their owners, and those in a shelter. It might be expected that shelter dogs, starved of the usual amount of human contact, would respond especially well to social interaction as a reward. On the other hand, if a relationship with someone is needed for that interaction to be valuable, dogs with owners would respond more.

The experiments all used the same task: a simple nose-touch to the hand. In the food condition, the dogs and wolves were rewarded with a small piece of food. For the dogs, it was a piece of Natural Balance (except for one dog with allergies, who was given a small piece of potato instead). For the wolves, it was a small piece of sausage, because this is what the wolf trainers recommended.

In the social condition, dogs were rewarded with 4 seconds of social contact – petting either side of the head combined with verbal praise. (One of the wolves did not like physical touch, so he just received praise). This is only a short time of social interaction, but the length of time it took coincided with the length of time taken to give a treat.

If the dog or wolf touched the experimenter’s hand, the hand was removed to shoulder height and then the reward was given (food from the other hand or the social interaction). For the owned dogs, the owner carried out the experiment, and for the wolves at Wolf Park, a trainer did the experiment in each wolf’s pen, with another trainer present for safety reasons.

The results showed that across all three types of animal – shelter dogs, owned dogs, and wolves – food was a better reinforcer than social interaction. Although there were individual differences between animals, the use of social interaction as a reward did not lead to many nose touches. On the other hand, when food was used as a reward, many more nose touches were recorded, and the time interval between them was shorter.

The wolves did more nose touches than the dogs, and in fact the best performing wolf produced 33% more nose touches than the best performing dog. It’s not known if this is because of a wolf’s greater intelligence, or because they had some prior training that was useful (but some of the owned dogs had also had relevant prior training from their owners in their normal lives).

The results are fascinating. Instead of suggesting that dogs have developed special abilities to understand humans, it seems that our special relationship might come about because of ongoing reinforcement. The authors say, “…domestication has not necessarily resulted in dogs being more sensitive to human behavior than wolves. The comparison with wolves confirmed that the relative effectiveness of social interaction for hand-reared wolves was the same as for dogs.”

Of course, only a brief period of social interaction was used in this study, and it might be that longer periods would work better. If this were the case, though, I would have expected the dogs to nudge the experimenter to ask for more fuss. And while the food reward for the wolves was sausage, which might be a better motivator than the treat given to the dogs, it’s still the case that social interaction did not really motivate the wolves or dogs.

So next time someone says they want to phase out treats in dog training, this study provides evidence that it would be a good idea to stick to the treats after all.

If you want to know more about how to use food to train your dog, check out my article on positive reinforcement in dog training.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

From your dog’s point of view, what’s the best reward in a training session? For my dogs, sausage is definitely a favourite.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. (2012). Relative efficacy of human social interaction and food as reinforcers for domestic dogs and hand‐reared wolves. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 98(1), 105-129. 

You might also like: 
Do dogs prefer petting or praise?
The importance of food in dog training
How do hand-reared wolves and dogs interact with humans?

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