Audible Versus Edible: Which Type of Reward Does Your Dog Prefer?

sfsblog_audible_edibleWhich does your dog prefer, a yummy treat or verbal praise from you? Does your answer differ between the dogs in your household?

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!

Best wishes,

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
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Please visit 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,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.


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9 Comments on “Audible Versus Edible: Which Type of Reward Does Your Dog Prefer?

  1. I train for competition in multiple dog sports. Verbal praise is the “marker” and food usually (sometimes play) is the “reinforcer”. It’s very effective for achieving high levels of consistent performance.

    My breed is notoriously food motivated. German Shepherds are famously not food motivated. So I would have liked to see the breed information published with the study.

    I agree that dogs willing to work for praise alone do well in service work; some of the service dog programs require food-free training for potential service dogs.

  2. On the Y maze, it seems to me that dogs are smart enough to head for the owner who has been feeding them for their entire life, rather than just one bowl of treats. We all work for rewards be it money or doggy dinner, and often praise means the owner is happy and will feed the dog soon, or the boss is happy and will give us a raise.
    Insight Dog Training

  3. I train many types of breeds with different motivations to learn new behavior. I always offer the standard list of rewards: Food, praise, play or even a walk I agree that Primary reinforcers such as food are useful in certain breeds (for example in scent work, Beagles or Labradors might excel with Food reward training as it is usually practiced in scent games). A fake rabbit coursing in front of an Afghan Hound, is not only about food. The hunting of a lure is in itself a reward and not just the food itself. Food is too much of a generic term: Which food and how they get from their genetic conditionning (Hounds are very different from toy dogs for example). My own dog is extremely picky and would only respond to a behavior cue with certain foods and not with others. He also has responded very well to praise with food, such as clapping my hand and saying “Bravo” to his conditioned behavior. Over time he offers the behavior, expecting the praise.
    There are not enough details of types of breeds and the way these dogs were conditioned to lay still by the MRI machine. I think 15 dogs is too much of a small group to draw conclusion but it’s certainly an interesting study.

  4. True, a 2-year old Belgian Sheepdog dog, prefers praise and petting. Food is not important to him (confirmed by an animal communicator). He is a picky eater – dislikes chicken, peanutbutter and bread. He likes eggs and bacon 🙂 Yes, is is skinny and high-energy. Very confident show (off) and service dog. We compete in conformation and rally.

  5. I agree with Laurel and I am disappointed to read this. 15 dogs does not a scientific study make, and we do not know the level of connection the dogs had with their humans?
    While my dogs may love treats given a choice between interacting with me or a treat they would most likely choose me and then go for the treat. This is truly a very unscientific study not by a scientist but appears to be based on her observations.

  6. Mine are so used to treat rewards that they prefer them, and expect them. But they also obey with praise.

  7. I suspect these dogs have had extensive training and relationship building with their handlers. Teaching a dog to lie still in an MRI scanner is not a “one and done” type of behavior to teach. Prior to this study, in my opinion, these dogs already had a close relationship with their handlers/owners.
    I have had canine students that ignored me and walked away if I was not forthcoming with a cookie. Of course I did not have the same relationship with them as they had with their owners.
    My own dog, 18 month old Standard Poodle, in a “new environment” prefers my attention and communication over food reinforcement.
    This study does give me pause, to always take in the relationship between the owner and the dog.

  8. The article stated, “, 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”. While the study is interesting, shame on you for extrapolating from a study of only 15 dogs to “many (if not most)” dogs! As stated by Sarah Dean, there are many other factors to consider here before assuming that the 15 dogs in this study can qualify as a norm population for dogs in general. As stated in the article, even teaching the dogs to lay quietly in an MRI machine is a big achievement, so these dogs already have a different training history than most other dogs and may already qualify as a unique population due to their ability to successfully complete that training. Any chance that these dogs were bridged with praise while building longer and longer periods of being still which then culminated in a treat? That history of praise (which I agree is very valuable to dogs that have a good relationship with their person) may be strongly connected with other types of valuable rewards including treats, play and petting… it certainly is for my dogs! Associating neutral objects with the imminent availability of food only or praise only is not going to negate that history of praise being associated with other things as well as the dog’s person being seen as the provider for all of those things (this along with a possible history of being trained to come when called in the face of distractors could easily explain the choice most of the dogs made to come to the owner instead of the food in the maze test). I will certainly continue to point out to my training students that praise can be extremely valuable for their dog and should be used liberally in training and I will point to this study as an example of that, but unless these dogs had no history of getting food rewards paired with praise we cannot claim that this study shows praise to be more important. I would hate for this study to be used by those that argue for praise only as a reward in training, especially since that philosophy often includes molding a dog into the positions and behaviors the person wants so that they can then praise the dog for the behavior. Food lures and rewards can play an extremely important role in clearly and non-invasively showing a dog what is wanted and reinforcing that behavior early on in training. Obesity is caused by over-feeding, not over-training…I certainly haven’t noticed an over-abundance of fat but well-trained dogs! It is quite possible to do a lot of lure/reward training and still have a physically fit dog because food rewards should be small and healthy and the dog’s regular diet should be reduced in proportion to what they received in training that day… and because lures should be faded as training progresses and the dog should be moved to a variable schedule of reinforcement. Not every performance should be reinforced and not every reinforcement should be edible… but to suggest that this study shows that people can expect to train their dogs using just- or even predominantly- praise and end up with well trained dogs that are happy to work for their person is a leap in logic that cannot be made when the dogs used in the study do, in fact, have a history of receiving food reinforcement during their training.

  9. I would have been interested to know which breeds were used in the study as well as their age and training background. As a professional dog trainer, I see quite a difference in response depending on breed. Working breeds are focused on what owners want, Terriers not so much for instance. Young dogs with little training are also less likely to be focused on the desires of owners. Before I would except this study as a general truism I would need more information.

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