"Good dog" just doesn't cut it with pooches. Surprising new research shows that dogs prefer petting over verbal praise.
"I spend half my day talking to my dog," study co-author Dr. Clive Wynne, professor and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, told The Huffington Post in an email. "She always looks like it's valuable to her. It's quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn't seem to be rewarding to them after all."
For one part of the study--published online in the journal Behavioural Processes--researchers observed 42 shelter and pet dogs as they interacted one at a time with two people in a room. One person petted the dog, while the other praised the dog verbally. The researchers measured how much time the dog chose to spend interacting with each person.
For the next part of the study, 72 shelter and pet dogs were individually placed in a room with just one person--a stranger for the shelter dogs and the pets' dogs owners. Interactions between the person and the dog were recorded over eight three-minute sessions. Each session varied between the person either petting or praising the dog or both, or having no interaction with the dog.
What did the researchers find? The dogs showed more interest in people who were petting them. Even more surprising, the dogs showed no more interest in spoken praise than in having no interaction with the human at all.
"I was surprised that when only one alternative was available, dogs still did not engage with the human for vocal praise," study co-author Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, assistant professor of anthrozoology at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, told The Huffington Post in an email. She conducted the research while earning her doctorate degree at the University of Florida.
Why would dogs prefer petting over vocal praise? Feuerbacher noted that previous studies showed that dogs' heart rate and blood pressure were lowered by human petting--similar to the way in which human contact can help human health as well.
Despite this new finding, Wynne said he hadn't stopped talking to his dog. But now, he said, "I just recognize better that I'm doing it more for my benefit than for hers. And this study doesn't say that you can't train your dog to recognize vocal praise. If vocal praise is paired with rewards that dogs do care about (petting, food, etc), then they can learn to value it."