The Dodo
September 09, 2014 10:32 am

This post was written by Ben Guarino on The Dodo.

Want to say “thank you” to your dog? Your pooch would prefer if you use your hands—for petting—rather than words, two experts in canine behavior reported recently in the journal Behavioral Processes. Talking to a dog appears to be much more beneficial for humans than for dogs.

Erica Feuerbacher, a scientist at the University of Florida, and Arizona State University researcher Clive Wynne tested both shelter dogs and owned dogs—encompassing several breeds and mixes—to determine a preference for either praise or petting. During the trials, two people sat in a room with a dog. One person, in a “high tone of voice” spoke words like “You are such a good doggie! What a sweet dog you are”—taking care to avoid words like “dinner time” that could indicate real rewards—while the other gave pets to the neck and back or belly-rubs, if the dog rolled over. (After five minutes with a dog, the assistants switched which reward they were offering.) The scientists timed how long the dog stayed near each reward-giving assistant.

In each experimental group, including when a dog’s owner was offering vocal praise, the dogs spent much more time with the petter than the praiser. “It’s quite a shock to discover that what we say to dogs doesn’t seem to be rewarding to them after all,” says Wynne to The Huffington Post. “Without specific conditioning, human vocalizations are as meaningless for dogs as for cats,” the authors write.

“Watching my dog more carefully now, I notice that, although she certainly doesn’t mind being talked to, she doesn’t seek it out either,” Wynne writes in an email to The Dodo. “What she actively seeks, even to the point of putting her body under my hand, is being petted.”

This isn’t the first time scientists have noticed the power of petting. Human contact lowers stress in shelter dogs, for example. And when humans feel a comforting touch, our heart rates and stress hormones go down, too. “When you watch dogs playing amongst themselves—or observe packs of wolves—there is a lot of physical contact, both friendly and less so,” Wynne says in an email to The Dodo.

As powerful as petting is, Wynne hasn’t stopped chatting with his canine. “And this study doesn’t say that you can’t train your dog to recognize vocal praise,” he tells The Huffington Post. “If vocal praise is paired with rewards that dogs do care about (petting, food, etc), then they can learn to value it.”

And while most dogs enjoy petting, there’s an even more effective way to a dog’s heart, at least according to another recent study by Florida canine experts: food.

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