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There’s a New Study Out on Dog Reward Behaviors, and Guess What It Found?

dog treats

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers from Emory University studied whether dogs prefer praise or food, using analysis of both behavior and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the dogs’ brains
  • Most of the dogs preferred praise over food or liked both equally
  • Increasing research suggests dogs are emotionally intelligent, sentient beings and deserve to be treated as such

By Dr. Becker

If your dog were offered the choice of a tasty treat or warm praise, which would she choose? You might think food right off the bat, but a new study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience is challenging this notion.1

Since the early 1900s when Ivan Pavlov conducted his classical conditioning experiments, many people have viewed dogs as “Pavlovian machines.”2 That is, the theory that dogs are primarily driven by food and respond to and interact with their owners simply as a way to get fed.

“Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself,” Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns, Ph.D. said in an Emory University news release.3

Indeed, growing evidence suggests dogs are not only food motivated but also desire strong relationships with humans for reasons that are only now beginning to be explored, like receiving praise.

New Study: Dogs May Prefer Praise Over Food

Dogs are uniquely integrated into humans’ social structures, making them a perfect choice to study cross-species social bonding.

Researchers from Emory University decided to look into the novel question of whether dogs prefer praise or food, using analysis of both behavior and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the dogs’ brains.

This first required the dogs to learn how to enter the fMRI scanner without being restrained or sedated, and to keep still while the scan took place. Then a series of experiments involving 13 dogs took place.

First, the dogs learned to associate a pink toy truck with a food reward, a blue toy knight with verbal praise from their owner and a hairbrush with no reward (the control). While in the fMRI scanner, the dogs showed stronger neural activation for the reward objects than the control item.

Further, four of the dogs had particularly strong neural activation for the praise reward while nine dogs had similar activation for both food and praise. Only two dogs seemed to prefer food over praise.

In the next experiment, the dogs went through a Y-shaped maze multiple times. At one end was a bowl of food; the other led to the dog’s owner and when the dog arrived, the owner praised the dog.

The neurological profiles obtained in the prior experiment fit with their maze choices, such that dogs that showed strong neural activation for praise chose their owners over food most of the time. Berns explained to Emory University:4

We found that the caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment … Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make.

Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time.

It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.

… Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”

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Do Dogs Experience Similar Emotions As Humans?

The study raises intriguing questions about the way we view dogs (sometimes as property instead of as individual, sentient beings).

Berns’ work training dogs to willingly go into the fMRI scanner has been instrumental in uncovering previously unanswered questions about canine emotion and behavior, particularly in relation to activity in the caudate nucleus brain region.

The caudate plays a role in human anticipation of enjoyable things (like food and love) and is activated accordingly. Previous research by Berns and colleagues revealed remarkable similarities in caudate activation in dogs.

Activity increased in response to hand signals indicating food, the return of an owner who had stepped out of sight and other scenarios that would similarly activate the caudate in humans. Berns wrote in The New York Times:5

Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”

Is Your Dog Food Motivated or Praise Motivated?

You may already know the answer to this question, as some dogs (like certain Labrador retrievers) do tend to be more food motivated than others.

In Berns’ featured study, only one dog — Ozzie, a short-haired terrier mix — chose food over his owner’s praise every time, suggesting once again that every dog has a mind of his own.

If you’re curious to know what your dog is thinking, the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is led by Berns, is looking for doggy participants in the Atlanta, Georgia area.6

If your dog can learn to hold his head still in the MRI, he could participate in the project and you could gain a whole new perspective into what’s going on in your dog’s mind.

Another fun tool is Dognition, which allows you to conduct an online assessment of your dog to gain insights into his intellect and motivations. The assessment can be done at home and involves playing games with your dog and reporting his results.

Then he’ll be assigned one of nine different profiles based on a combination of characteristics that shape the way he approaches daily life. The more you understand about your dog, the deeper and more rewarding your relationship can be.