Do Dogs Work for Praise and Affection?

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

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

Dogs Evolved to Work for Food

As for you and your dog, you’re often asking her to set aside her agenda in favor of your own. I’m not sure dogs get bored and irritated by this, exactly, but all animals have evolved to behave in ways that maximize their odds of surviving to reproduce. (It’s true that for many pet dogs reproduction is impossible, but that doesn’t change their evolutionary past.) To maximize the odds of living long enough to reproduce, you have to find food, water, and other essentials while expending as little energy as possible. All that walking on leash and coming when called and leaving the pot roast alone, for nothing but praise and scritches? Evolutionary alarm bells are ringing, folks.

Of course, you feed your dog. She gets her two squares a day—she doesn’t really need to conserve energy and focus her efforts on keeping herself alive, the way free-living animals do. However, think about this:

  1. Regular meals for dogs are a relatively new phenomenon

  2. Considering how many dogs there are, few get those regular meals.

All that evolutionary history of scrambling to get enough to eat to stay alive isn’t just going to evaporate. Your dog is still primed to do things that will get her food, in preference over things that don’t get her food.

If you’re thinking “Hmm, my Lassie does get happy and excited when I pet and praise her,” then ask yourself whether “Oh, what a cute wonderful good dog you are!” sometimes comes with a bite of cheese or meat attached. I’ll bet it does. And by the way, that’s absolutely fine.


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).