I scan through a lot of veterinary literature and have to tell you that even when the subject matter is riveting, most titles are not exactly eye catching. So, when I saw a paper with the heading “Shut up and pet me,” I just had to take a look, and isn’t that what a title is supposed to do?

 

The researchers wanted to know whether dogs prefer petting or vocal praise and whether or not it mattered if the person doling it out was the dog’s owner or a stranger. They utilized shelter dogs, owned dogs interacting with strangers, and owned dogs interacting with their owners in a series of experiments that noted the dogs’ initial choice of petting versus vocal praise, the time they chose to spend experiencing each, and how many times the dogs voluntarily switched between the two options when both were offered. Their findings were simple, “across all experimental groups, dogs preferred petting to vocal praise.”

 

Next, the scientists gave each dog only one option and measured the amount of time he or she spent with the person – their owner in the case of owned dogs and a stranger in the case of shelter dogs. The dogs “alternated between petting and vocal praise, vocal praise and no interaction, or received only petting for eight 3-min sessions of each comparison.” All the dogs hung out near “their” human for a significantly longer period of time when they were being petted versus receiving vocal praise or no interaction.

 

The paper’s authors note that there was no real difference between the dogs’ desire to be close to a person when they were receiving vocal praise in comparison to no interaction. I don’t find this result too meaningful, however. After all, the experience of being told you’re a “good boy” isn’t all that different whether you’re sitting at the speaker’s feet or across the room. The same can’t be said for petting.

 

One thing won’t come as too big of a surprise to all you dog owners out there – the dogs in the study never seemed to tire of being petted. Granted, the sessions in question only lasted for three minutes but as we all know, it tends to take something awfully intriguing (say dinner being served) for a dog to voluntarily end a session of petting.

 

I’d love to see a similar experiment performed with cats. The authors of the dog study speculated that vocal praise has to be “conditioned” or learned before it can have an effect. I suspect this applies even more so to cats – the masters of the disdainful look. And petting? I’ve known feline snuggle bunnies but also just as many cats who will do almost anything to escape the hand that pets them... up to and including giving it a little nip.

 

Dr. Jennifer Coates

 

References

Shut up and pet me! Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) prefer petting to vocal praise in concurrent and single-alternative choice procedures. Feuerbacher EN, Wynne CD. Behav Processes. 2014 Aug 27. pii: S0376-6357(14)00187-9.

 

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