Research Paper Review: Dogs prefer petting to vocal praise

A recent issue of Behavioural Processes was devoted entirely to studies of canine behavior. Here I summarize one publication within that issue. For complete issue access, visit

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C.D.L. (2015). Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures.

Most of us who work or live with dogs understand the importance of physical contact in our affectionate interactions with them. For many of us, our daily stream of communication with our own dogs flows with long-winded conversations, intermittent praise or verbal reprimand, and often lots and lots of cuddling. In this tidy little study, researchers were able to tease apart the value of that vocal praise relative to petting and demonstrate with methodological rigor which type of interaction dogs prefer.

And the trophy clearly goes to petting.

In Experiment 1, Feuerbacher and Wynne compared the responding of three groups of dogs: Shelter Dogs, Owned Dogs tested with strangers, and Owned Dogs tested  with their owners. Each dog was brought into the experimental room on leash and allowed to meet each of two assistants seated in chairs. For the first two groups, both assistants were strangers, while for the third group, one of the assistants was a stranger to the dog while the other was the dog’s owner. After allowing the dog to sample each of the two alternative interaction styles (receiving either momentary praise or petting from the two assistants), the dog was released from leash at a point equidistant from the two assistants and the dog’s approach and duration of time spent in proximity to each person was measured.

During each 10-minute session, one assistant provided vocal praise only (e.g., “You are such a good doggie! What a sweet dog you are!”) while the other provided petting only (on whatever body part was closest to the experimenter and without blocking the dog’s ability to walk away freely) for the first 5 minutes. The assistants then switched roles for the remaining 5 minutes. Proximity was carefully measured as the duration of time spent within an outlined area around each assistant’s chair. Order of presentation and location of type of interaction were counterbalanced across dogs.

In results that were clear and fairly robust, all groups of dogs preferred petting to vocal praise. That is, they spent more time around the person providing petting. This was true even when it was their owner providing the vocal praise and a stranger providing the petting. And when the assistants switched roles mid-session, the dogs tracked that change in contingencies, sticking with the petting no matter who it was delivering it.
In Experiment 2, the authors corroborated their Experiment 1 findings by measuring the amount of time dogs spent in proximity to one assistant who provided either petting, vocal praise, or no interaction across conditions of several within-subject reversal designs. Again, the dogs’ behavior tracked the contingencies – they spent significantly more time in proximity with the assistant when the assistant was petting them relative to praising them. In fact, the dogs spent as much time with the assistant praising them as they did when the assistant provided no interaction at all. These findings were consistent across shelter dogs and owned dogs.

In summary, whether these dogs were shelter dogs or owned dogs, and whether they were with their owner or only strangers, dogs preferred to spend time with a person petting them to a person providing vocal praise. While vocal praise engendered some approach and some small bouts of proximity, it was not significantly more appealing to these dogs than no interaction from the person at all.

These results replicate previous findings that petting functions as a positive reinforcer for dogs’ behavior. Given the lack of effectiveness of praise alone in this study and others, the authors contend that it’s possible that petting might serve as an unconditioned reinforcing stimulus for dogs, while vocal praise might be something that requires pairing with other stimuli (e.g., petting, food) to earn and maintain reinforcing value.

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