Just Being Near You Is Rewarding for Dogs

Dogs will work and learn tasks just to gain access to their owner.

Posted Jul 21, 2016

Hitdelight/Shutterstock
Source: Hitdelight/Shutterstock

"I know that the data says that therapy dogs help to reduce stress in people, but as far as I'm concerned the work that we require these therapy dogs to do constitutes animal abuse."

This startling statement was made by a clinical psychologist. She and another psychologist were having coffee with me and we were discussing ongoing research into the effectiveness of therapy dogs in relieving the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for veterans returning from conflict zones. "Look at it this way," she said. "The patient draws comfort and reassurance from the presence of the therapy dog, and ultimately this may help him to get on with his life. But what is the dog required to do? The dog is required to stay with that person, even if the patient is not paying any attention to them, even if the patient is not socially interacting with them, no matter how sterile or boring the environment might be." 

Our colleague disagreed with this interpretation. He said, "Dogs like to be around people. They're not like kids who need to be entertained all the time. At least anecdotally, dogs follow people around just to be in their presence."

It just so happens that a report bearing on this subject was recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. The study was conducted by Erica Feuerbacher of the University of Florida and Clive Wynne of Arizona State University. This is a small study; only three pet dogs served as test subjects. However, in terms of the number of measurements, the research was quite intensive—there were five different experimental conditions, and a total of 30 measurements were taken on each of these conditions over a five-day period.

The test sessions occurred in a fairly uninspiring and barren room that contained only a desk, a chair, and a door in one corner which opened to give access to the living room. The major question being addressed was whether the dogs considered it a reward to be in the presence of their owner. The researchers reasoned that if it was, the dogs would learn to make a specific response (like pressing a button) in order to gain access to their owner.

Each of the dogs learned such a response when their only reward was a one-minute escape from the room, which resulted in one minute of interaction with their owner in the living room. After one minute, the owner led the dog back to the room, closed the door, and continued the session. Remember, the dogs are learning to perform a task in which their only incentive is gaining access to their owner. The fact that they learned to do something based on that opportunity alone, and then frequently performed that task when given the chance, seems to confirm that the dogs did consider being near their owner to be a reward.

Once the dogs had learned the task, the researchers set up "abolishing operations," the technical term for trying to produce conditions that might reduce the likelihood that the dog will perform this newly learned task. The first two attempts involved trying to make the room more attractive and interesting. In one condition toys were put in the room for the dog play with. Although this reduced the number of times that the dogs performed the response to open the door and gain access to their owner, the dogs still preferred to be with their owner, rather than with the toys, more than half the time. Putting the dog's bed in the room produced a variable response: One of the dogs laid down on the bed and stopped responding, while for another dog it made no difference; that dog continued to try to gain access to the owner at the same rate as before. The third dog landed somewhere in between the other two.

The most interesting conditions were those in which the owner was brought into the room. Remember that the dogs had learned a task that gave them the chance to get out of the boring room and access the rest of the house. In the first condition, the owner entered the room and immediately began to interact with the dog, petting it and talking to the dog as she moved to the chair to sit down. She continued to talk to the dog and pet it if it were close enough throughout the session. I don't think it's a surprise to find that in this situation, the dogs happily stayed in the room and made very few responses to open the door and leave their owner. This kind of attention is very rewarding to dogs, so they had no incentive to leave.

There was one final test condition—perhaps the most relevant. This condition evaluated whether it was the presence of the owner alone that was rewarding—even when that person was not paying attention to or interacting with the dog. Was the owner's being nearby enough to keep their dog happily in the room?

For this test, the owner entered the room and told the dog, "I'm going to work. Be a good dog." She gave the dog a pat, and then sat at the desk to work while ignoring the dog. If the dog performed its learned response it would be let out of the room and could move away from its owner and be in the rest of the house for a period of one minute. Even when the dog's owner was merely present in the room, without any kind of social communication or any attention being paid to the dog, most of the time all three of the dogs chose to remain in the room with very few requests to leave the presence of their owner.

The researchers conclude that their data shows that dogs find being in the vicinity of their owner is rewarding. Dogs will learn to do behaviors just to gain access to their owner, and will remain in their owner's presence even when there are no interactions between the human and the dog.

Thus, my colleague's assertion that it is abusive to require a therapy dog to continually stay with an owner, despite the fact that there is nothing appealing for the dog to do, is clearly not confirmed by these findings. This new data suggests that dogs prefer to be near their owner—and that they appear to find the mere presence of their human companion to be rewarding.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; and The Left-hander Syndrome

Reference

Erica N. Feuerbacher and Clive D. L. Wynne (2016). Application of Functional Analysis Methods to Assess Human-Dog Interactions. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 49 (3), 1-5.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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