Imagine this scenario: You call your dog over for a belly rub, but there's a pile of dog treats next to him. Can he leave the tempting, tasty morsels for a little love from his favorite human?
Researchers didn't set up this exact scenario, but in a new study at Emory University in Atlanta, 15 dogs were given an owner-versus-treat option. The pets were already trained to lie calmly in a functional MRI machine. They had their brains scanned as they were shown objects they associated with rewards. The dogs had already learned that when they saw a toy car, for example, they would be given a piece of hot dog. When they saw a toy horse, their owner would pop in for a few effusive moments of "Good dog!" praise. When they saw a hair brush, nothing happened.
During the scans, the researchers looked at the ventral caudate, the area of the brain associated with decision-making, risk and reward. They found that of the 15 dogs, nine of them showed the same response to both of the toys associated with food and praise, four showed a greater level of brain activity for the one linked to the owner's praise, and just two showed a more active response for food over their owners' praise.
For the next part of the study, which was published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers set up a simple Y-shaped maze in which the dogs had the choice of going down one branch of the maze to find a bowl with dog treats or going down the other path to find their owner. The dogs showed the same inclinations they showed in the scanner, with all but two having an equal or greater tendency to choose their owner over food. (The other two went right for the snacks every time.)
Researchers said the study findings might help owners train their pets, and might also identify dogs suited for work as service dogs. A dog that prefers praise, for example, might make a good therapy dog, while a dog that prefers treats might be better suited for a job that's more independent from humans, like a search and rescue dog. The researchers point out that there are some dogs that don't seem to have a clear preference for either praise or treats and those dogs may not be cut out for these specific working dog roles.
But the study does offer one basic takeaway for dog owners: A pat on the head and a belly rub are usually great ideas when working with your pet.
"More generally, our findings support the use of social praise as a reward in dog training," the researchers write. "For most dogs, social reinforcement is at least as effective as food – and probably healthier too."