Food rewards versus human social contact

I have just read an interesting piece of research comparing the effectiveness of food rewards and human social interaction as reinforcers for shelter dogs, owned dogs and hand-reared wolves.

The research found that social contact was relatively ineffective compared with food rewards. Before you start feeling smug and saying “there’s one in the eye for the ‘dogs want to please’ theorists, let’s look at this a little more closely.

Author(s):Feuerbacher, Erica N. and Wynne, Clive D. L.
Source:J Exp Anal Behav. 2012 July; 98(1): 105–129.

Despite the intimate relationship dogs share with humans in Western society, we know relatively little about the variables that produce and maintain dog social behavior towards humans. One possibility is that human social interaction is itself a reinforcer for dog behavior. As an initial assessment of the variables that might maintain dog social behavior, we compared the relative efficacy of brief human social interaction to a small piece of food as a reinforcer for an arbitrary response (nose touch). We investigated this in three populations of canids: shelter dogs, owned dogs, and hand-reared wolves. Across all three canid populations, brief social interaction was a relatively ineffective reinforcer compared to food for most canids, producing lower responding and longer latencies than food.

I think the research may be flawed for several reasons. The main one being that rewards are relative both for one dog and between dogs.

As I repeatedly tell my students, the definition of a reward is not a thing, like a piece of food or a pat. It is the opportunity to engage in a preferred activity or behaviour.

Some dogs generally prefer one type of reward, others generally prefer another. For example, some dogs are obviously “foodies” while others are clearly ball-obsessed, and others are cuddle-bugs. But individuals will all change. Even your Kelpie will eventually want to stop playing ball and come in for dinner. Even dedicated foodies will sometimes prefer to go for a walk, when pulling towards an interesting patch of grass to sniff will be more enticing than the most delicious food.

So the first thing you have to do if you want to do research on the efficacy of food rewards versus social rewards for dogs is to determine their unconstrained preferences – given a free choice, would your dog go for the ball, the food or the chance to have a pat? Then you can introduce a contingency, and use a high preference behaviour as a reinforcer for a lower preference behaviour.

Then it would be more relevant to apply the comparison to one individual dog, not to a whole population. So for example, for your dog, taking a piece of food is the highest preference. Next down the list, she would like to have a pat, but she is not interested in a ball or toy. As David Premack has established, for that dog, in that environment and at that time, both patting and food rewards would reinforce any behaviour related to playing with the ball. Patting alone would function as a reinforcer for play with a ball, but as a punisher for eating food. If you pat your dog, then give her a food reward contingent of being patted, the value of being patted will go up.

It all depends on what is available in the environment at the time, what contingencies are operating and what other conditions are influencing the dogs.


About transformational1

I have many interests and I have had a varied career. I am a semi-retired professional dog trainer, specialising in the use of positive reinforcement. I do some consultations, I run instructor workshops and I am setting up a Dogs and Psychotherapy Research Project. I have a law degree from Melbourne University (but have never practiced) and I am passionate about Human Rights. My first degree was in Sociology. I worked as a social researcher on issues such as low income housing, women's refuges and women in the workforce. I live in an inner suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and I have a German Shepherd called Chance.
This entry was posted in Dogs, food rewards, Learning theory, Premack, research about dogs, Training theories. Bookmark the permalink.

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