Good Boy! Do Dogs Prefer Food or Praise?

When your dog Bella does her series of three tricks--rolls over, shakes and speaks--in perfect succession, would she rather have a doggie treat or praise from you?

Given the choice, many dogs actually prefer praise over food, according to researchers from Emory University in Atlanta.

Dogs were at the center of the most famous experiments of classical conditioning, conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov showed that if dogs are trained to associate a particular stimulus with food, the animals salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus in anticipation of the food.

"One theory about dogs is that they are primarily Pavlovian machines: They just want food, and their owners are simply the means to get it," said lead study author and neuroscientist Gregory Berns. "Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself."

The study: The researchers wanted to better understand the basis of the dog-human bond. Is it mainly about food? Or is it about the relationship? Thirteen dogs completed the study. All were trained to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning without restraint or sedation.

The dogs were trained to associate three different objects with different outcomes:

  • A pink toy truck signaled a food reward
  • A blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner
  • A hairbrush signaled no reward, which served as a control

The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an fMRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.

The dogs also participated in a behavioral experiment. Each dog was familiarized with a room that contained a simple Y-shaped maze constructed from baby gates. One path of the maze led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog's owner. The owners sat with their backs toward their dogs. The dog was then repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths. If they came to the owner, the owner praised them.

The results: Of the 13 dogs that completed the study most 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.

"Dogs are hypersocial with humans," Berns says, "and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding."

The study findings were published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

--From the Editors at Netscape

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