Dogs are often called man's best friend because they are supposed to be uniquely attuned to human wants and needs and have special capacities that allow them to be able to read human emotions and communication. So why do trainers suggest that new owners train their dogs with treats? Many owners want to get out of that stage right away; if dogs are indeed Man's Best Friend, shouldn't they just want to work for praise and affection? A study from researchers at the University of Florida attempted to get to the bottom of just this question.
The study conducted five different experiments, four on dogs and one on hand-reared wolves. Two of the dogs came from shelters; the other two had owners. Researchers guessed that the dogs would do better in the experiments than the wolves, but assumed that the experiment could go one of two ways. If social interaction was all that was needed, the shelter dogs would perform better, because they were starved for attention. If a relationship was needed, the dogs with owners would perform better on the tasks.
The task was simple: the dog needed to just touch its nose to the hand of the person giving the instruction. For the food condition, dogs were all given a small treat. All the dogs received a piece of Natural Balance as their treat, except for one dog with allergies, who received a small piece of potato.
Wolves received a small piece of sausage. For the social condition, dogs and wolves were given four seconds of a pat on the head combined with verbal praise. One wolf did not like being touched, so he received only praise.
Researchers found that both dogs and wolves responded better to the task when they were given food, not when they received praise. When food was given as a reward, much more noses were touched for both wolves and dogs. And, more surprisingly, wolves performed more nose touches than dogs did. Researchers were unsure whether that was because wolves were more intelligent or if they had received training more often before the test, though the owned dogs also had received some training.
Published in the Journal of Experimental Behavior, the study suggests that the reason that dogs' relationship with people is so special is that the relationship is constantly reinforced, rather than any symbiosis.