Dog owners, take note! Your pet pooch may prefer praise from you over food, a new study suggests.
The study is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioural experiments to explore canine reward preferences, researchers said.
“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it is mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” said Gregory Burns from Emory University in the US.
Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, researchers found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally.
“Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food,” said Berns.
For the study, researchers began by training the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes.
A pink toy truck signalled a food reward; a blue toy knight signalled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signalled no reward, to serve as a control.
The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded.
All of the dogs showed a stronger neural activation for the reward stimuli compared to the stimulus that signalled no reward, and their responses covered a broad range.
Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signalled praise from their owners.
Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food, researchers said.
The dogs then underwent a behavioural experiment. Each dog was familiarised with a room that contained a simple Y-shaped maze constructed from baby gates - one path of the maze led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner.
The owners sat with their backs towards their dogs. The dog was then repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths. If they came to the owner, the owner praised them, researchers said.
“We found that the caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” said Berns.
“Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make. Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80 to 90 per cent of the time,” he said.
“It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us,” he added.
The findings were published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.