Most domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer food to petting: population, context, and schedule effects in concurrent choice

J Exp Anal Behav. 2014 May;101(3):385-405. doi: 10.1002/jeab.81. Epub 2014 Mar 18.


Previous research has indicated both petting (McIntire & Colley, 1967) and food (Feuerbacher & Wynne, 2012) have reinforcing effects on dog behavior and support social behavior towards humans (food: Elliot & King, 1960; social interaction: Brodbeck, 1954). Which type of interaction dogs prefer and which might produce the most social behavior from a dog has not been investigated. In the current study, we assessed how dogs allocated their responding in a concurrent choice between food and petting. Dogs received five 5-min sessions each. In Session 1, both food and petting were continuously delivered contingent on the dog being near the person providing the respective consequence. Across the next three sessions, we thinned the food schedule to a Fixed Interval (FI) 15-s, FI 1-min, and finally extinction. The fifth session reversed back to the original food contingency. We tested owned dogs in familiar (daycare) and unfamiliar (laboratory room) environments, and with their owner or a stranger as the person providing petting. In general, dogs preferred food to petting when food was readily available and all groups showed sensitivity to the thinning food schedule by decreasing their time allocation to food, although there were group and individual differences in the level of sensitivity. How dogs allocated their time with the petting alternative also varied. We found effects of context, familiarity of the person providing petting, and relative deprivation from social interaction on the amount of time dogs allocated to the petting alternative.

Keywords: attachment; choice; domestic dog; food; human interaction; petting; preference; social reinforcement.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Dogs / psychology*
  • Extinction, Psychological
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Female
  • Food*
  • Human-Animal Bond*
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Reinforcement Schedule*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology*
  • Satiety Response
  • Social Environment
  • Social Isolation
  • Touch*