Do Dogs Prefer Petting or Praise?

A new study asks dogs to make the choice.

Close-up of a happy white Pomeranian dog
Photo: Felix Rohan/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

A lot of people like to think they can reinforce their dog with verbal praise such as “Good girl!” But does it mean anything to the dog?

We know that, given a choice, dogs prefer food over petting or praise (Feuerbacher and Wynne 2012; Fukuzawa and Hayashi 2013; Okamoto et al 2009), and this is why food is so useful in dog training. A new study by Erica Feuerbacher (Carroll College) and Clive Wynne (Arizona State University) takes food out of the equation and investigates whether dogs prefer petting or verbal praise.

In a series of two experiments, shelter dogs and owned dogs were given a choice between petting and praise. The results showed that dogs prefer petting. Now before you say this is not surprising, remember we just said many owners expect their dog to be obedient in exchange for a simple “Good boy!” It doesn’t sound like such a good deal from the dog’s point of view, does it? 

In the second experiment, the scientists compared verbal praise to nothing happening. And in fact, “vocal praise was nearly indistinguishable from no interaction.”

If saying “Good dog!” is always followed by a treat, it will come to have some meaning for the dog since it predicts a food reward. However, without this conditioning, it doesn’t have any significance. Yet this is something many dog owners seem to forget.

It’s interesting to compare this to cats. In a 2013 study, Saito and Shinozuka found that, although cats can recognize their owner’s voice and distinguish it from someone else, they do not pay much attention to their speech. They (and many commentators) speculated that it might be different for dogs.

However, Feuerbacher and Wynne say, “Our results suggest, however, that without specific conditioning human vocalizations are as meaningless for dogs as for cats.” They say it is likely conditioning that causes both dogs and cats to recognize their owner’s voice.

A woman gives tummy rubs to a relaxed Golden Retriever
Photo: Mat Hayward/Shutterstock
In both experiments, shelter dogs and dogs with owners took part. The authors thought that shelter dogs might appreciate petting more than owned dogs, since they don’t have their own human and are probably starved of human interaction. The shelter dogs did not show any particular interest in praise, but in the beginning they were more interested in petting than the dogs with owners. 

A total of 114 dogs took part, with a wide mix of breeds and crosses. In the first experiment, dogs were offered a choice between two people, one who was offering petting and one who was offering vocal praise. After 5 minutes, they swapped roles for a further 5 minutes. Even when it was the owner offering praise, dogs preferred petting from a stranger.

In the second experiment, with a different set of dogs, one person alternated between offering petting or praise or, in a different version, they alternated between petting and no interaction with the dog. Sessions were videoed and the researchers analyzed the amount of time each dog spent in proximity to the people or in contact with them.

Petting is important to dogs, say the scientists, as it supports social behaviour and helps build attachment between human and canine. For shelter dogs in particular, it may help to reduce stress. 

The study also investigated whether there was a limit to how much petting the dogs liked. In this condition dogs were petted as long as they were in reach.

Guess what? The dogs liked it! They chose to remain close to the person and be petted for the full duration. 

The dogs in this study were all social dogs, and the results would be different for dogs that are fearful. Dogs also have preferences for where they like to be petted, namely the side of the chest and under the chin (Kuhne et al 2012). Choosing to pet them in a different place would be less preferable to the dog.  

This study adds to our understanding of the role of petting in the relationship between people and dogs. It also shows that verbal praise is fairly meaningless to a dog, unless it has been conditioned.

The full paper is currently open access (see the link below). 

How long is it before your dog tires of being petted?

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

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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
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
Fukuzawa, M., & Hayashi, N. (2013). Comparison of 3 different reinforcements of learning in dogs (Canis familiaris) Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 8 (4), 221-224 DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2013.04.067
OKAMOTO, Y., OHTANI, N., UCHIYAMA, H., & OHTA, M. (2009). The Feeding Behavior of Dogs Correlates with their Responses to Commands Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 71 (12), 1617-1621 DOI: 10.1292/jvms.001617
Saito, A., & Shinozuka, K. (2013). Vocal recognition of owners by domestic cats (Felis catus) Animal Cognition, 16 (4), 685-690 DOI: 10.1007/s10071-013-0620-4

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