03 September 2016

RESEARCH - Dogs Like Food but Prefer Praise

A recent study offers hope for those pet owners who fear their dogs are freeloaders befriending them for food and place to live.

Although kibble is clearly very appetizing, it would appear many dogs don't view their people as de facto food factories according to the study highlighted in the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal.

Instead, the findings show most dogs put through extensive testing - and when given the choice - prefer praise from their owners over food.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food or about the relationship itself,” Gregory Berns, an Emory University neuroscientist and lead author of the research told the journal.

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

The study combined brain-imaging data with behavioural experiments to try to analyze canine reward preferences.

Dogs were trained to correlate three different objects with particular outcomes; A pink toy truck signalled a food reward, a blue toy knight signalled verbal praise from the owner and a hairbrush was added as a control garnering no reward.

The dogs underwent 32 trials to see how they reacted to the objects while in an MRI machine so their neural activity could be recorded.

The results showed all the dogs had a “stronger neural activation for the reward stimuli compared to the stimulus that signalled no reward.”

Four dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signalled praise from their owners while nine showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and food stimulus.

A minority, two dogs, consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

Research subject Ozzie
Ozzie, a terrier mix, was the only dog who chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time.

“Ozzie was a bit of an outlier but Ozzie’s owner understands him and still loves him,” Berns told the journal.

In another experiment, dogs were faced with a Y-shaped maze and had a choice to take the path to a bowl of food or one to their owner who would offer praise.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the dogs stayed in character, so to speak, and demonstrated responses similar to those in the first experiment.

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

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

The findings are in stark contrast to famous studies done by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s which showed dogs can be trained to associate a particular stimulus with food and will salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus in anticipation of the treat.

While the so-called Pavlovian response is certainly compelling, Berns says there is increasing evidence dogs might be motivated by more than kibbles.

“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,” he says.

“Another, more current, view of their behaviour is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

The Berns’ lab is currently exploring the ability of dogs, which are “hypersocial with humans,” to process and understand human language.

“Their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding,” Berns explains.

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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