Contrafreeloading: Why animals may prefer to work for food

 We see the argument put forward frequently that our dogs actually prefer to work for food rather than getting food for free.  At first look, this seems illogical. Why would any animal choose a path of work and effort rather than a path of freebies? 

Foraging, hunting, and seeking are innate behaviours which are surely improved through learning but fundamentally they are instinctive and a great many animals spend a huge chunk of their time just seeking food.  This instinct to seek food is obviously hugely important from an evolutionary standpoint. Fail to find enough food and you may die before passing on your genes; find enough food and you get a shot at passing on those successful food seeking genes to another generation. You end up with a planet full of animals with a reasonably strong instinct to go looking for food.

This still doesn’t quite explain why they would ever choose working for the food rather than eating what is freely provided, does it?  When given the choice, why don’t they all think, oh, I found the food right here in this bowl, I need do nothing more than eat.

Professor Robert Sapolsky explains that dopamine (basically a feel-good brain chemical) rises when an opportunity to gain food appears, not when they actually get the food. This tells us that there may be more of a thrill or a high in the pursuit of something than in actually getting that something.

A note of caution here: This should absolutely not be taken as a reason not to provide reinforcement in training, without success, the thrill of the chase would soon die.

We can see this phenomenon in ourselves. That thing you really, really, really wanted for Christmas as a child. You had to have it! Life would be awful if you didn’t get it! All that energy, all that time, wishing for it, wanting it, praying for it and pestering for it. When you finally got it, maybe it didn’t fulfill you like you thought and your attention soon moved to the next big thing that you just had to have.  As adults we might see the same thing happening with that car or promotion, when we finally get it, our mind soon moves on to seeking something else; seeking seems to be a never-ending thirst.  So much so that the foundation of Buddhist teachings are based on relieving ourselves of this addiction to wanting stuff, because of the suffering it brings to complex human lives.  Animals usually want only the basics, for example, food, water, shelter, and safety, rather than amassing wealth. We, humans, tend to get a little more carried away with our wants.

In our dogs, what we might be seeing during contrafreeloading is that genetic link to their ancestors who had to seek to live, coupled with a dopamine rise during such seeking behaviour. Simply put, it feels good to forage.

However, it isn’t a given that animals will contrafreeload. There are many contributing factors.  For example, animals which already have more than enough opportunity to perform their natural behaviour may not feel the need and animals which are hungry may prefer to dive straight in than contrafreeload.  Maybe some have lost too much of their ancestors behaviour traits through our selective breeding.

My own feelings are that we should be encouraging seeking behaviours in our dogs and giving every opportunity to fill some of the behavioural deficits many face due to their modern living conditions as companion animals to humans. No animal ever evolved by receiving free food in a bowl. Every feed is an opportunity to give them something back; it’s an opportunity to allow natural behaviour and promote the feel-good factor.

Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read

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