Erica Feuerbacher smiles when she talks, and why shouldn’t she? As a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida with the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab , she spends a lot of time with dogs (or at least dogs in the form of data). Through her research, she meets many, many, many dogs, some of whom live in animal shelters. This is the story of her latest research and a special subject named Raleigh.
What do you want from me?
Feuerbacher’s research investigates dog preference for different types of human social interactions, or simply put: What do dogs want from us, and under what conditions do they want it? For example, your dog might happily hang out with someone doling out hotdogs, but is your dog also likely to spend time with someone offering petting only and no hotdogs?
In Feuerbacher’s latest study, shelter dogs and owned dogs were put to the test to see whether they chose petting or food. Because dogs, being dogs, often prefer food when readily available, the researchers ran an experiment with multiple sessions where food became more and more scarce.
Feuerbacher wondered, “If food’s not available, will dogs shift their preference to the person who’s offering petting, hang out with nobody at all or continue to hang out with the person who had been giving out food but has stopped?”
During a 1-minute pre-exposure period, dogs learned that one experimenter gave out food while another gave out petting. Then, dogs had 5 minutes to spend time with whomever they chose, and they could move back and forth freely.
Petting or Food?
Many shelter dogs and all owned dogs had an initial preference for the person giving out food. But in sessions where food was not available, many shelter dogs spent time with the person offering petting. When food again became available, dogs almost always went back to the person with food.
Some of the shelter dogs initially showed a preference for the person doing the petting, not the person giving out food (although, eventually, they all opted for food). As you might imagine, dogs in animal shelters are frequently deprived of human interaction, so it isn’t all that surprising that shelter dogs would opt to spend time with people when given the chance. Alternatively, owned dogs initially went for the food person and stayed with the food person, even when food became more scarce. Owned dogs have ready access to petting from their loving owners (raise your hand if you are petting a dog right now), but food is not always available.
Raleigh, a mutt who had been picked up as a stray, was game for any interaction with humans. As the graph shows, when food was available (triangle), Raleigh was all over it, but when food stopped, Raleigh was all about the petting (circle) — he was quick to say, “bye bye food person,” and “hello petting person!” And when food came back into circulation, he was more than happy to accept.
“He’s a food type of guy, but he’s also a petting type of guy” Feuerbacher explains. In the session where dogs were exposed to continuous petting but food was doled out at 15-second intervals, Raleigh approached the food person. He waited about 8 seconds, and when he didn’t receive any food, he then went to the petting person, where he remained for the rest of the session. His social behavior was much more extensive than a lot of dogs.”
When the study ended, Feuerbacher kept an eye on Raleigh at the animal shelter. When he still hadn’t been adopted after 2 months, Raleigh joined the ranks as a foster dog in Feuerbacher’s home, where he now spends his time with three other dogs doing doggie things like waiting for food, snuggling on the couch and frolicking with his foster siblings. But he is also waiting for a home.
Raleigh is available for adoption through Phoenix Animal Rescue  in Gainesville, Florida.
Raleigh, of course, has a Facebook page .
You can meet Raleigh this Saturday, May 18, 2013 at PetsMart in Gainesville, Florida.
Feuerbacher has good reason to smile when she talks about Raleigh: “I liked that he liked food because that helps with training. But I also liked that when food wasn’t available, he was really social. Everything he did was gentle. I just thought he was a really neat dog.”
Feuerbacher, E. N. & Wynne, C. D. L. Dogs’ preference for different types of human social interaction in a concurrent choice test. (In prep)
Images copyright E. Feuerbacher
This story was originally published by Scientific American.  Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies .