(Do you want to know?)
Our Dogs Love Us
Of this, we are pretty certain.
Of course, this is the science dog, so we like evidence. One of the ways in which researchers study dogs’ relationships with owners is to measure dogs’ preferences – called differential responses – in a variety of situations. In many settings, dogs show clear preference for their owners over unfamiliar people. For example, our dogs greet us more enthusiastically after separations, gaze into our eyes more frequently, show preferences to us when in unfamiliar or stressful situations, and seek us out as a secure base when feeling a bit unsure or stressed. Scientists, as is their parsimonious tilt, refer to these behavioral signs as attachment-like behaviors. Personally, I think we can agree that they signify what most dog folks think of as love. Certainly, most of us demonstrate the same behaviors towards our dogs. We love them and wish to be close to them.
Socialized Wolves are Similar
Interestingly, studies with wolves who have been socialized to human caregivers have found similar results. Wolf puppies seek the proximity of their caregiver over a stranger and adult wolves show signs of using their caregiver as a secure base when allowed to explore a new environment. Although studies do report significant differences between dogs and wolves (and there is still controversy over the specific impacts of domestication), there is evidence that the ability to form attachments to humans exists in wolves.
Do Our Dogs Prefer US over Food?
In addition to asking if dogs they prefer their owner over strangers, researchers have also asked dogs (and wolves) whether they preferred their owners over…… food. (Oh boy).
This one proved to be a bit more complicated.
Petting-Providing vs. Food-Providing Person
The available research has focused on comparing two pleasant stimuli for dogs; social contact (measured as proximity to someone and/or petting by that person) versus gustatory stimuli (aka FOOD). There are a few published studies of this type, all of which asked dogs (and, in a small number of cases, wolves) to demonstrate their preferences for a person who was providing petting versus a person who was providing food. Several factors influenced the dogs’ responses. These included ownership status (owned dogs went more quickly for the food; shelter dogs went more readily for the petting); testing environment (owned dogs became more interested in petting when exposed to a novel setting, suggesting a secure base effect); and degree of deprivation (how long the dog was isolated from their owner influenced responses). However, in all of the previous work, dogs were asked to choose between a person who offered petting versus a person who offered food. What had not been tested, until recently, was how dogs and wolves might respond when faced with a choice between their owner/caregiver and food that was offered independently of a human. In a 2022 study, Clive Wynne’s team at Arizona State University and Erica Feuerbacher’s team at Virginia Tech University collaborated to answer this question.
A group of 10 adult dogs, living in homes with their owners, were tested. Each test took place in a familiar room within the owner’s home. The experimental set-up involved having the owner and a bowl of food located equidistance from the room’s entryway. Prior to testing, dogs were isolated from their owners and had not been fed for 4 to 6 hours. Upon returning, the owner first placed the dog’s bowl in a designated spot and then stood approximately 2 meters away. Upon entering the room, the dog’s approach behaviors, initial choice (person vs. food), and amount of time spent in each location were videotaped and measured. Each dog was tested four times. The same experimental design was used to test a group of 6 hand-raised and socialized wolves with their primary caregivers (see paper for complete details regarding the experimental design).
The dogs demonstrated a lot of variation (and differed pretty significantly from wolves). Here are the study’s major findings:
- Dogs Love their Owners…… Not a surprise to most of us. When “first choice” was measured (i.e. where did the dog head to first), dogs chose their owner first in ~ 70 percent of the trials. However, because of the large range of behaviors, this percentage was not statistically above what we would expect from chance. Basically, dogs tended to say “Hiya!” to mom or pop prior to taking a peak at the food (but not always).
- AND….. They Also Love Food: Though many of the dogs first approached their owner, once they discovered their bowls (FOOD!), the dogs spent equal amounts of time with their owner and their food bowl during the test period.
- Wolves Went for Food: Conversely, hand-raised wolves showed a significant preference for food as their “first choice” and spent more time near the food than near their caregiver over the four trials. Specifically, wolves went to the food immediately in 75 percent of the trials and spent on average over 80 percent of their time with food.
Take Away for Dog Folks
The researchers provide several potential explanations for the differences observed between dogs and wolves. These included feeding schedule differences (the wolves were probably more food deprived than the dogs); differences in the degree and type of day-to-day interactions with the owners/caregivers (dogs probably had more frequent interactions and lived in the home with their owners); and age differences between the groups (on average, the wolves were older than the dogs). Regardless, these data are consistent with other studies that demonstrate a generally higher level of sociability with humans in dogs than in hand-reared wolves.
It is important to note that while each dog behaved quite consistently for all four trials, there was quite abit of variation among individual dogs. Factors that might influence these differences included degree of motivation (i.e. is your dog food crazed versus food finicky?), degree of sensitivity to isolation, and genetic/breed differences. For those of us who live with multiple dogs, this does not come as a surprise. For example, I would expect our Alice to beeline it for the food after a very quick “HiYa Pop!” while Stanley, our Toller, would be much more inclined to come in for some serious cuddling before checking out that food bowl.
Another point of practical interest may be the utility of a preference test of this type when assessing dogs. The authors suggest that using a simple choice test (in this case owner interaction versus food) might provide a measure of a dog’s stress response to separation and may be an approach to expanding our understanding of separation-related behavior problems in dogs. In other words, would a dog who chooses his owner first and either ignores or spends little time with the food reflect a stress response to separation or perhaps a sign of over-attachment? Since many dogs with separation stress shun food toys when anticipating isolation, it may be helpful to explore differential responses to the owner versus food following a period of isolation in dogs with and without separation-related problems.
Last, of course, this one is obvious to reward-based trainers. Food is and continues to be, a strong (if not the strongest) primary reinforcer for dogs. They may even love it more than they love petting and interactions with us (as hard as that may be to hear). So, continue to use it in training. These results show that, yes our dogs love us, but they also really do love food!
So, what about your dog? Would he choose you first over food?
Cited Study: Isernia L, Wynne CDL, House L, Feuerbacher EN. Dogs and wolves differ in their response allocation to their owner/caregiver or food in a concnurrent choice procedure. Peer J 10:312834; doe.org/10.771/peerj.12834, 2022.