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What Do Dogs Really Care About?
Study finds that many pups prefer praise over treats.
A recent study out of Emory University found that many dogs prefer praise over treats. It all began when neuroscientist Gregory Berns was interested in what dogs "really care about." He wondered if it was all about food, or if social rewards were potentially more valuable.

15 dogs, trained to lie still for 30 minutes in an MRI, went through three experiments. The first looked at brain activity when presented with different objects--a hairbrush, a toy car, and a toy horse--paired with a hot dog, praise, or nothing. For 13 of the 15 dogs, their brains were stimulated by the praise just as much, if not more than, the food.

In the second test, Gregory wanted to replicate the first experiment, but this time a subset wouldn't get praised. The researchers found that the dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment seemed to be more disappointed than the other pups when they didn't get it this time around.

The third experiment took place outside of the MRI, in a maze where the pups had to choose between finding a bowl of food and getting praise from their owner. Researchers found that the outcomes of the first two tests were a strong predictor of the dogs' choice. The 13 dogs whose brains were stimulated by the praise, chose to head straight to their person instead of to the treats.

Gregory believes that the research shows dogs are primarily motivated by praise, which could have a great impact on training strategy. He also thinks that these findings can help identify which idividuals might be most successful as service dogs.

“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” Gregory notes in the study, “while a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”

As for our own pets, I think this study reinforces how social we know dogs to be. However, I'm not completely sure all of my dogs would pick me over a tasty treat!

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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