Do Dogz Prefer Praise to Food?

Everyone is talking about this earth-shattering new study that proves once and for all that dogs prefer praise over food. Can I point out one teeny weeny detail that might question the potency of this study?

Only 15 dogs were used. 

And these 15 dogs were chosen specifically because they were ones who were able to lie still for 30 minutes while undergoing an MRI. None were “super-athletic, high-drive dogs,” researcher Gregory Berns told The Washington Post. Instead, Berns says that “lots” [of the 15 dogs] were labradors.

So, of these 15 dogs, who were mainly labs, 13 showed as much or maybe even a little bit more brain activation to praise versus food.

Just to make sure I understand this mind-blowing study correctly, let me try to sum it up.

In an experiment using fewer dogs than I can count on my fingers and toes combined — who were very similar and often the same breed — most of their brains lit up on an MRI to show that praise stimulated them as much or maybe a teeny tiny bit more than food. Therefore, we can conclusively shout out to the world that dogs prefer hearing “attaboy!” to a piece of chicken.

Come on. I’m sure there are some dogs who are highly motivated by praise, but to make the leap that because of this study we can now save money on treats? That’s just silly.

When it comes to training your dog, I think I can give you a more meaningful experiment to determine if your dog is more motivated by praise or by food.

Below is a plan to teach your dog to come when called (courtesy of The Academy for Dog Trainers). Follow each step to the letter. Once you’ve mastered this, stop giving him food when he comes to you — just give him praise, and over time see if his recall starts to weaken.

But I warn you: Coming when called is expensive behavior to dogs — meaning that if there are other dogs around or squirrels or deer or just the joy of romping around free, dogs often would rather continue to do what they’re doing than immediately stop and sprint back to their peoplez. This is why when we train recalls, we use a really high-value treat — it’s got to be worth their while.

So if knowing that in any emergency situation your dog will fly back to your side when you call him to you is important to you, I wouldn’t do my little experiment. Odds are that with each time you use praise alone and don’t give him food, he’ll be less likely to come back to you right then.

How do I know this? Because since the middle of the 20th century, thousands upon thousands of animals have been trained using food as motivators. I’m sorry. To me, a study of 15 similar dogs just doesn’t compare.


No-Fail Coming When Called

Do ten of each step, then move on to the next.  The key to a recall is a great pay-off every time.

Sequence:

  1. Cue (a word or sound your dog has not heard before. Hubz and I use the word “komdu,” which means “come here” in Icelandic.)
  2. Prompt (happy talk, bend over, back away)
  3. Dog comes
  4. Reward – use very high value, something that is never given at other times, like roasted chicken and provolone cheese.

Checklist

Leash Prompt or No Distance Location Distractions Did 10?
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue 10 feet At home or in yard None
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue Maximum At home or in yard None
Off leash Cue only Random At home or in yard Dog is not expecting it
On leash Prompting as needed after cue 6 feet On walk Whatever is around
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue 6-10 feet Off-leash area Low as possible
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue Maximum Off-leash area Low as possible
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue 3 – 6 feet Off-leash area Dogs present
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue 10 feet Off-leash area Dogs present
Off leash Prompting as needed after cue 20+ feet Off-leash area Dogs present
Off leash Cue only 20+ feet Off-leash area Dogs present

7 comments on “Do Dogz Prefer Praise to Food?

  1. Biased and under powered. I wonder how many journals turned it down before publication? Actually, it is good to publish the bad stuff too as it can hopefully inspire scientists how NOT to conduct studies.

    I just get concerned that the media pick up on this, totally twist the relevance and average dog owners read it and think ‘my dog will work for praise and doesn’t need food to motivate him’ Groan….

    • I was discussing this with some Academy folks last night, and I find one point absolutely fascinating: What if the dogs in the study have already learned the association of praise with food? To run this experiment cleanly, you’d have to use untrained dogs or dogs who were trained with food but never also with praise. You can’t use untrained dogs, because you need them to be trained to lie still for the MRI, so it’s really a tricky proposition to run this experiment cleanly.

      • that is the point, I think. food is a primary reinforcer, praise is a secondary. dogs value praise because of the conditioning (mostly with food :D). and there are so many circumstances, which can change the outcome: for example food refuse.

      • Exactly – methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny based on our current understanding of how dogs learn. The Academy should submit a letter to the editor! 😜

  2. Pingback: Please Don’t Scare Your Puppy – dogz and their peoplez

  3. We took on a dog who was a run-away. No recall the speak of. we couldn’t even lure/bribe her with food.
    But we’ve worked with her steadily for about two years now, and she WILL come flying for a ‘love up’ an scratch of her chest and the side of her face. This little dog who used to run away if anybody ever tried to touch her. The love worked where food had consistently failed 🙂
    (But I still need to use food treats in training — unlike my German Shepherds and Kelpies who do prefer praise and fondling– well if you call playing African Drums against the ribs fondling in the case or The Klutz (aka Ironbark, a tall German Shepherd).

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