Will Work for Hot Dog?

How do scientists motivate dogs to take part in scientific research?

How do scientists motivate dogs to take part in research? Photo shows two German Shepherd Dogs take dog cookies from the oven
Photo: kitty / Shutterstock
By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Canine science relies on dogs taking part in experiments so that researchers can learn more about what dogs know or how dogs behave.

In some scientific studies dogs are allowed to act naturally, but in others they need to learn something such as how to operate an apparatus they haven’t seen before, or to observe people interacting.

Either way, you can’t guarantee canine cooperation. So just how are dogs are motivated during the course of the research itself?

Needless to say, food is a common denominator. We know that in dog traininggreat training treats can really help. Scientists have to consider what to use too, as dogs won't work for free. Many studies use sausage or hot dog.

For example, in one study that looked at whether dogs can recognize human emotional expression (Buttelmann and Tomasello, 2012), dogs were given a piece of sausage if they successfully chose the box containing it, rather than one containing wood shavings or garlic, after a human had peeked into the box and made an appropriate facial response.

An experiment to test whether dogs can smell the amount of food (Horowitz, Hecht and Dedrick, 2013) used pieces of hot dog in smaller or larger amounts.

Another study (Range, Huber and Heyes, 2011) refer to “a small piece of sausage” as the reward in training dogs to open a box. With up to 350 trials in the experiment proper, that’s potentially a lot of sausage. 

Other enticing food rewards are used too. Elgier et al (2009) writes that
“As reinforcer, small pieces of dry liver of 3g were used. In order to control the odor, both containers were greased with abundant liver before the experience.”

You can just imagine the dogs licking their lips, though they only received liver if they chose the correct one of two boxes by following a pointing gesture from their owner. Otherwise they were told “no” and shown that the liver was in the other box. 

Other studies use regular food, or a mix of kibble and treats. Burman et al (2011) used “two different types of food reward (standard food pellets and Frolic TM)”. They explain that,
“The dogs were familiar with both food types, receiving standard food pellets as their regular diet and being rewarded with Frolic during training.” 

In some cases, the researchers have made a note in the method section that they had to take account of food allergies. For example, in a study of to investigate whether dogs prefer food treats over verbal praise and affection (Feuerbacher and Wynne, 2012) most of the dogs were given a piece of Natural Balance, but one dog was rewarded with a piece of potato.

Although it may surprise some readers, this is fine: the thing that counts is whether or not the dog finds it rewarding. (If the dog didn’t like potato, then it would have been a problem).

"With up to 350 trials in the experiment, that’s potentially a lot of sausage"

Human preferences may also have to be taken into account, such as in Freidin et al (2013)’s study of dogs’ eavesdropping abilities. Sausage was used as a reward for the dogs, but they had to first observe an interaction between three people.

Although sausage might have been acceptable to a human also, instead they used cornflakes. Hence, at the start of the study, plates were prepped with cornflakes (for the human) and pieces of sausage (for the dog).

Disappointingly, some studies refer only to “food” or “treats” without specifying exactly what, so we can’t draw up a table of the most preferred food item.

What do you use when training your dog at home?

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, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Burman, O., McGowan, R., Mendl, M., Norling, Y., Paul, E., Rehn, T., & Keeling, L. (2011). Using judgement bias to measure positive affective state in dogs Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 132 (3-4), 160-168 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.04.001 
Buttelmann, D., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Animal Cognition, 16 (1), 137-145 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4 
Elgier, A., Jakovcevic, A., Mustaca, A., & Bentosela, M. (2009). Learning and owner–stranger effects on interspecific communication in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) Behavioural Processes, 81 (1), 44-49 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2008.12.023  
Feuerbacher, E., & Wynne, C. (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 DOI: 10.1901/jeab.2012.98-105  
Freidin E, Putrino N, D'Orazio M, & Bentosela M (2013). Dogs' Eavesdropping from people's reactions in third party interactions. PloS one, 8 (11) PMID: 24236108  
Horowitz, A., Hecht, J., & Dedrick, A. (2013). Smelling more or less: Investigating the olfactory experience of the domestic dog Learning and Motivation, 44 (4), 207-217 DOI: 10.1016/j.lmot.2013.02.002  
Range F, Huber L, & Heyes C (2011). Automatic imitation in dogs. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 278 (1703), 211-7 PMID: 20667875

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