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Do Dogs Prefer Praise or Food?

do dogs prefer praise or food

The bond between dogs and their human companions is special, which is something many dog parents already know. Now a new study provides some evidence of this unique bond, at least when it comes to whether dogs prefer people praise or food.


Do dogs love you or your food?

A group of researchers at Emory University set out to answer a question that has been on the mind of dog parents for a long time: do dogs really value contact with their two-legged companions or are we simply the hands that feed them? Ever since Ivan Pavlov conducted his infamous experiments in the early 1900s in which he showed how dogs can be trained to associate a specific stimulus with food, it’s easy to envision dogs salivating at the sight of treats and chow.

But would dogs rather have our praise or our food? The study’s lead author, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and head of the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, and his team conducted the first-ever study that combined brain-imaging data with experiments involving dogs’ behavior when it comes to reward preferences.

Prior to this work, Berns and his colleagues had shown that areas of the canine brain responds more strongly to the scent of humans that are familiar to them (e.g., their owners) than to the scents of other people or even familiar dogs. They also named the ventral caudate region of the dog brain as a reward center, similar to that seen in humans.

How the dog study worked

Thirteen dogs who had been trained to remain still while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner were also trained to associate three different objects (pink toy truck, blue toy knight, hairbrush) with different outcomes—food, praise, or no reward, respectively. For this first part of the experiment, each dog was tested 32 times for each of the three objects while being scanned in an fMRI machine.

Here’s what the researchers observed:

  • All of the dog displayed a stronger response on their fMRI for reward stimuli (food or praise) vs the no-reward stimuli
  • Four dogs displayed a strong response to praise stimuli
  • Nine dogs showed similar responses to both praise and food
  • Two dogs consistently displayed more response to food

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In the second part of the experiment, the dogs were individually released various times into a room that had a Y-shaped maze. The dogs could go either to a bowl of food or to their owner (who had his back turned to the dog). If the dog choose his owner, he was praised.

Results of this behavioral experiment showed that:

  • Dogs who had the strongest response to praise during the first part of the experiment went to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time
  • “The caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” noted Berns.

This study is just one of several being conducted by Berns and his team into the behavior of dogs. The results demonstrate “the importance of social reinforcement to dogs” and can help choose which canines are better suited for working tasks, such as therapy dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.

Also Read: Your dog knows what you are saying

Cook PF et al. Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs’ preference for praise vs food. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 2016; nsw102 DOI:10.1093/scan/nsw102

Image courtesy of Pixabay