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Food, Petting or Praise: Which Does Your Pet Prefer?

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog training treats or praise

Story at-a-glance -

  • A 2014 study suggests treats are more effective than other types of rewards when you’re training your dog, especially when you need him to learn a behavior quickly
  • A 2016 study of 15 dogs using an fMRI scanner indicated that most of the dogs responded to both praise and treats equally, which suggests you can alternate between praise and treats during training sessions
  • A third study showed that dogs prefer petting to praise, so this is yet another way to mix things up when training your dog to keep her mentally stimulated
  • When you use training treats, be sure they don’t account for more than 10% to 15% of your dog’s daily food intake; it’s best to use fresh human foods or species-appropriate homemade treats

A few years ago, a study was published suggesting that offering food rewards is the best way to get your dog to do what you want.1 For all of you dog parents out there, I'm sure this seems like plain old common sense, since most of us have never met a healthy dog who wasn't wild about tasty treats.

According to the lead author of the 2014 study, Erica Feuerbacher, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal and Poultry Science at Virginia Tech, dogs clearly prefer treats to petting and praise. "They'll work harder and respond faster for food than for social interaction," she says.2

I don't doubt this is true, however, there are times when getting a dog to work harder and faster isn't the goal. In addition, there are benefits to changing things up to keep dogs mentally stimulated. Petting and praise from their favorite human are also highly motivating to most dogs, along with "life rewards" such as getting to play or going for a walk.

Another benefit of using non-food-based rewards from time to time is to ensure your dog doesn't become another pet obesity statistic. (I'll discuss my recommendations for training treats shortly.)

Some Dogs Appear to Value Praise as Much or More Than Treats

In a 2016 study, a team of researchers at Emory University used fMRI scanners to look at the brains of 15 dogs as their owners either praised them or offered them a food treat.3

The dogs were first trained to associate three different objects with three different outcomes. A pink toy truck meant a food reward; a blue toy knight meant verbal praise from the dog's owner; and a hairbrush meant no reward. The dogs were put through 32 trials for each object while the fMRI machine recorded their brain activity. Predictably, all 15 dogs reacted more strongly to the truck and the toy knight than the hairbrush. Also:

  • 9 of the 15 showed similar neural activity in response to both the truck and the toy knight, indicating they found both treats and praise equally motivating
  • 4 dogs showed an especially strong reaction to the blue toy knight, suggesting they were apt to be more motivated by praise than food
  • The remaining 2 dogs showed a consistently stronger reaction to the pink toy truck, indicating a preference for treats over praise

Bottom line: For most of the dogs (13 of the 15), the areas of the brain responsible for reward and decision-making showed the same or more activity when they were praised than when they received a treat.

Most Dogs Don't See Their Humans as Just a Means to an End (Food)

In the second phase of the Emory study, the same dogs were put in a simple maze constructed with baby gates. There was a bowl of food at the end of one path in the maze, and their humans sat with their backs to them at the end of a second path. Most of the dogs took the path that led to their owners and received praise. The dogs who headed for the food bowl were the same ones who showed a preference for treats over praise during the fMRI scan. Neuroscientist and lead study author Gregory Berns summed it up this way:

"We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it's mainly about food, or about the relationship itself. 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."4

One of the chowhounds was a shorthaired terrier mix named Ozzie. Ozzie chose food over his owner's praise 100% of the time. (Thankfully, his human understands that Ozzie's a foodie and loves him in spite of it!) According to conventional wisdom, dogs are primarily "Pavlovian machines" says Berns, meaning their only motivation is food, and the humans in their lives are simply a means to an end. However, a more current view is that dogs also seek human contact for its own sake.

"Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make," says Berns. "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."5

In contrast to Ozzie the chowhound, Kady, a Labrador-Golden Retriever mix, was quite consistent in her preference for praise. This will be no surprise to those of you familiar with these breeds, as they tend to be exceptionally motivated by a desire to please their humans. That's why there are so many Labs and Goldens doing therapy work, whereas dogs who aren't highly motivated by praise may be better suited for work requiring a degree of independence, such as search and rescue.

Shut Up and Pet Me!

A 2015 study aptly named "Shut up and pet me!" by researchers at the University of Florida and the University of Arizona suggests that when the reward is either praise or petting, petting wins paws down. The purpose of the study was to determine not only whether dogs favor petting over verbal praise, but also whether it mattered to them who did the petting or praising — their owner or a stranger.6

The researchers worked with three groups of dogs — shelter dogs, family dogs tested with strangers, and family dogs tested with their humans. Each dog was brought into a room on leash to meet two assistants sitting in chairs. For the first two groups of dogs, both assistants were strangers, but for the third group, one assistant was a stranger and the other was the dog's owner. One of the two assistants greeted the dog with praise; the other greeting involved petting.

The dog was then taken to a point in the room an equal distance from both assistants, the leash was removed, and the dog's voluntary interaction with each assistant was measured in 10-minute sessions. During each session, the assistants offered either praise only, or petting only for 5 minutes. Then they switched roles for the remaining 5 minutes. The dogs were measured according to the physical closeness and amount of time spent with each assistant.

The results of the experiment left no room for doubt — every single dog preferred petting to verbal praise. Not only did the dogs spend more time with the person doing the petting, they did so even when it was their owner doing the praising, and a stranger doing the petting.

And when the assistants switched places halfway through the session, the dogs continued to hang with the petting person. It's possible that one of the reasons dogs dig petting so much is because their heart rate and blood pressure are lowered in the process.7

So, whether it's shelter dogs or family dogs, and whether they're with their own humans or strangers, they choose petting over praise every time. They can't get enough of it. And while verbal praise temporarily interested the dogs, it didn't rank much higher than no interaction at all.

According to the researchers, these results confirm that petting provides positive reinforcement for canine behavior. Being petted is likely a naturally occurring reinforcing stimulus for dogs, whereas praise alone isn't effective and may need to be paired with petting or food.8

A Word About Food Rewards

Dog treats, even very healthy ones, shouldn't make up more than 15% of your dog's daily food intake, and ideally less than 10%. Try to limit them to training and behavior rewards, as a bedtime ritual, or as a "time to get in your crate" enticement.

Keep in mind that treats are not a complete form of nutrition for your pet, and should never be used in place of balanced, species-appropriate meals. Overfeeding treats on top of daily food intake will result in an obese dog, and overfeeding treats while underfeeding balanced meals will result in nutritional deficiencies.

Treats should be offered primarily as rewards during house training, obedience training, or other similar activities, and not because the rest of the family is having a snack. Treat size also matters; I recommend feeding morsels the size of peas to communicate "job well done." I always recommend feeding your pet treats made with human-grade food, preferably from your own kitchen.

Fresh human foods — I recommend avoiding all starch-based treats. Be sure to read package labels and avoid oatmeal, quinoa, tapioca, rice, chickpeas, lentils, etc. Your dog has no biological requirement for the carbohydrates in these treats, and in addition, they're pro-inflammatory. Instead, offer real food. Berries are a great treat because they're small and loaded with antioxidants. Frozen blueberries make easy, small training treats.

You can also offer small amounts of other fruits (melons and apples, for example) as well as cheese, frozen peas, and raw almonds, pecans, and Brazil nuts (but never macadamia nuts). Just be sure to feed quantities that are no more than a 1/8th inch square for a small dog or a ¼ inch square for bigger dogs.

Homemade treats — If your dog loves chicken jerky, you can make your own quite easily and avoid all those dicey commercial brands. Just buy some boneless chicken breasts (preferably organic), clean them, and slice into long, thin strips — the thinner the better. Place the strips on a greased or non-stick cookie sheet and bake them for at least three hours at 180 degrees.

The low temp dries the chicken out slowly, and the strips wind up nice and chewy. Let the strips cool, and then store them in plastic bags or another airtight container. You can also freeze them.

If you buy commercial canned food for your dog, you can repurpose a can for use as a supply of healthy treats. Open a can of your pet's favorite brand and spoon out little treat sized amounts onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Put the baking sheet into the freezer until the bite-sized bits of food are frozen. Then move them to an airtight container and put them back into the freezer until you're ready to feed them.

For more ideas on preparing special homemade treats for your canine companion, request my free e-book "Homemade Treats for Healthy Pets," which is loaded with nutritious, super-simple recipes for both cats and dogs.