The Efficacy and Conditioning of Attention as a Reinforcer in Animal Shelter

Principal Investigator: Steven W. Payne, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Institution: University of California, Fresno


Of dogs entering shelters every year, approximately only 37% are adopted, and a staggering 41% are euthanized (ASPCA, 2016). Although various factors may contribute to adoption criteria, a dog’s ability to socially interact with humans proves to be a significant one. Research suggests that dogs that are not adopted were found to spend twice as much time ignoring play initiation by adopters than those that were adopted (Protopopova et al., 2014). One possible behavioral issue common to animals in shelters is the lack of social interaction exhibited when considered for adoption and its potential to reduce the likelihood of their adoption. The present study aims to target this issue by focusing on the reinforcement value of human attention.

The primary purpose of the present research is to compare the reinforcing efficacy of attention and food with dogs. In the first experiment, we will provide attention and food contingent on a nose-touch response. An ABCBC reversal design will be used to assess experimental control. If attention fails to increase behavior, a second experiment will be conducted. The purpose of the second experiment will be to increase the reinforcing efficacy of attention with dogs. In this experiment, we will pair attention with food using a response-reinforcer conditioning procedure in an attempt to make attention a conditioned reinforcer that will have similar reinforcing properties as food. We will determine this by testing the reinforcer efficacy of attention in the absence of food prior to and following the conditioning procedure using a multiple baseline across subjects design.