If you think Scruffy lives to hear a word of praise from your mouth and obeys every command you pronounce simply because he is eager to please you, think again. As opportunistic beings, dogs tend to repeat behaviors that have a history of reinforcement. What dogs find reinforcing may vary from one dog to another. While attention can be effective, consider that it has its limits, unless you diligently work on pairing it with food.
Advantages of Attention
Giving attention to dogs is free. Your dog may look forward to your praise, pats and games. Most dogs crave attention from their owners and often behaviors are triggered by a need for attention. Jumping, barking and pawing are often driven by your dog's desire to grab attention. Sometimes dogs may even appreciate negative attention. Ever wondered why your dog still whines no matter how many times you have scolded him? Most likely, your little stinker finds this form of attention appealing. After all, negative attention is better than no attention at all.
Advantages of Food
The main advantage of food is that dogs don't have to learn to like it. Food is a primary reinforcer, basically something a dogs needs to survive and that causes an increase in the frequency of a behavior. If you give a piece of freeze-dried liver the moment your dog sits, you can rest assured that if he loves liver, he'll likely sit more and more. Attention under the form of praise is not necessary for survival, however if you repeatedly pair it with food by saying "good dog" followed by a tasty treat, eventually your dog will work for you just to hear you say it, explains certified applied animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell.
Disadvantages of Attention
While it's poetic to imagine dogs working exclusively to please their masters, in reality, the main objective of dogs is to simply please themselves, according to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. As an opportunistic being with a past as a scavenger, your dog's first thought when you ask him something is: “What’s in it for me right now?” While your dog may love it, attention isn't always at the top of your dog's hierarchy of rewards. For instance, if your dog is at the dog park, he may care less about being petted, or if he is sniffing grass, he may ignore the fact you are looking at him and talking to him.
Disadvantages of Food
At times, food may not be so interesting. If your dog eagerly wants to meet a dog or he is anxious, he may care less about that slice of baloney you wiggle in front of his nose. Also, some dogs who are used to having food available at all times may not be that enticed by food. Some dogs may not be interested in certain types of treats and you may need high-value treats to gain their interest. Not to mention the fact that you may run out of food or be distracted one day and forget to take it along.
Food or attention? If dogs could talk, what would the verdict be? Food will always remain salient from a dog's perspective because it's linked to survival and most dogs find it rewarding. Attention, however, remains important as well because it's been paired with food and general care. Biologist Raymond Coppinger theorized that proto-dogs approached human villages because they were attracted by the food dumped around them. Then as the dogs started interacting with humans, attention must have played a secondary role as it became synonymous with feeding and providing water, shelter, warmth and protection.
By Adrienne Farricelli
Animal Behavior Network: Positive Dog Parenting
Patricia McConnell: Using Secondary Reinforcers – Wisdom from Ken Ramirez
Quick and Dirty Tips: Do Dogs Work for Praise and Affection?
Association of Pet Dog Trainers: Why do Trainers Use Food When Training?
Whole Dog Journal: Reward Based Dog Training - Without Using Treats!
Public Broadcasting Service: Dogs That Changed the World
About the Author
Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.