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Do Dogs Work for Praise and Affection?

Learn why it’s important to use food rewards to train your dog

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #113

Most of my clients are comfortable using food rewards with their dogs, but some aren’t, and a fair number have wistful feelings about it. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog worked for you instead of some reward? I think this problem disappears if we look closely at the situation.

Our Dogs Love Us, So Why Isn’t Praise Enough?

We have every reason to believe our dogs love us. Although their brains are simpler and smaller than ours, the brain structures and neurochemicals that govern emotion are similar. Dogs’ behavior toward us sure looks like attachment: they greet us eagerly when we come home, for instance. And even a dog who hasn’t been taught to come when called will usually more or less stick around. In experiments, dogs show a “secure base effect” the way human children do: they explore their environment more, and interact more with other people, when their caretaker is present than when they’re alone. There’s even data suggesting that lab dogs may be more stressed by separation from their human caretakers than by a change of canine kennelmate.

So if our dogs love us so much, why do we need food rewards in training? Why isn’t it enough to praise them and show them affection? Why can’t they walk politely on leash for us, instead of for food?

People Need More Than Praise, Too

Our dogs love us, but they’ve also evolved to focus on staying alive by finding food.

Let’s say you have a friend—affectionate, always ready to thank you for the slightly inconvenient favors she asks of you. Could you pick her up a loaf of bread from the grocery store, even though you weren’t going shopping yourself? “Gee, thanks a million!” she says. While you’re here, would you sweep the snow off her front porch? Certainly. How about making her a cup of coffee, would you mind? Yes, you kind of do. You have plans of your own for the day. No matter how warmly grateful your friend is, being asked for a constant stream of favors without practical reciprocity gets old PDQ.

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About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).