PhotoA dangling treat may hold your dog in rapt attention, but new research suggests that most dogs crave another reward to a higher degree.

Using a combination of brain-imaging data and behavioral experiments, researchers from Emory University found that many dogs prefer praise from their owner 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," said neuroscientist Gregory Berns from Emory University.

As it turns out, the relationship dogs have with their owners is of much more value to canines than Pavlov might believe.

Value of social praise

At the end of nearly 100 trials, only two of the 15 dogs studied showed a preference for food over praise from their owners. The other 13 dogs either enjoyed praise more or appeared to like both equally, Berns noted.

Dogs’ preference for praise as a reward, rather than treats, contradicts the Pavlovian idea that the owner is merely a means of acquiring food.  

Dogs are "hypersocial" with humans, says Berns, who believes these experiments could help pave the way for studies that explore dogs' ability to process and understand human language. 

Study details

To conduct the study, researchers trained the dogs to associate three objects with three outcomes. A pink toy truck meant that the dog would get a food reward, a blue toy knight meant verbal praise from the owner, and a hairbrush meant no reward.

An fMRI machine measured dogs’ neural activity during each test. While most dogs appeared to enjoy both food and owner praise equally, four dogs in the group showed a much stronger neural response for praise.

The setting of the second test was a Y-shaped maze. One path lead to a bowl of food while the other lead to the dog’s owner (facing away from the dog). The praise-preferring dogs from the first trial went to their owners 80 to 90 percent of the time.

These results suggest that praise is of great value to dogs, said Berns, adding that social reward and praise, to dogs, “may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

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

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