Audible Versus Edible: Which Type of Reward Does Your Dog Prefer?
A team of researchers took it upon themselves to answer this basic question- do dogs prefer food or praise? Their results, published in Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, evaluated 15 dogs of various breeds. Prior to the study, the dogs were trained to lie very still within an operating MRI machine while having their brains imaged (no easy feat!) in order to avoid any effects of sedation or anesthesia.
Part one of the study
MRI scans of the dogs’ brains were performed while they were exposed to various stimuli. The researchers paid special attention to the ventral caudate portion of the brain, the area most active in response to rewards.
The dogs were presented with three different objects: a toy car (associated with verbal praise), a toy horse (associated with a food reward), and a hairbrush (associated with nothing). Compared to the control group (the dogs presented with the hairbrush), the dogs presented with the toy car or toy horse demonstrated significantly more activation within the caudate portions of their brains. Roughly equal or greater brain activation to the car (praise) versus the horse (food) was observed in 13 of the 15 dogs.
Part two of the study
This phase mimicked part one, except that the expected praise accompanying presentation of the toy car was withheld during some of the trials. Dogs who valued the social reward more than a food treat during part one of this study showed the greatest difference in brain activation between receipt of versus withholding of the expected praise.
Part three of the study
This phase took place outside of the MRI scanner. The researchers challenged the dogs with a simple Y-shaped maze. Released at the “bottom” of the Y, the dogs had the choice of traveling to either a bowl of treats or their owners where praise was doled out. Most of the dogs chose their owners. The degree of brain activation previously demonstrated in response to the stimuli turned out to be an accurate predictor of which way the dogs would travel in the Y maze.
We all know that dogs are super-social creatures. We also know that some are profoundly food oriented. Interestingly, 13 of the 15 dogs in this study demonstrated roughly equal or greater brain activation to the expectation of praise than they did with expectation of a food reward.
While this is interesting stuff to think about with our own dogs, the more practical application may be with working dogs. Those who place higher value on praise may be better suited for therapy/assistance dog/service dog roles. By contrast, a food-motivated dog might be a great choice for a search and rescue role.
Given the preponderance of obesity in our canine pet population, I love that this study emphasizes the point that many (if not most) of our dogs can thrive on receiving praise and social interaction for good behavior or a job well done. Food treats are not the best or only reward option, either in terms of our dogs’ brains or their waistlines!
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook
Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.