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Dogs May Prefer Praise More than Treats, New Study Suggests

Sep 19, 2016 05:12 AM EDT

A new study revealed that dogs, if given a choice, may prefer having praised by their owners rather than being given treats or food.

The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggests that social reward and praise are important to dogs and might even be analogous to what human feel when they are praised.

"Dogs are hypersocial with humans and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding," said Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and lead author of the study, in a press release.

For the study, the researchers trained 13 dogs to associate three different objects with three different outcomes. A pink toy truck signaled a food reward; a blue toy knight signaled verbal praise from the owner; and a hairbrush signaled no reward, to serve as a control.

Using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers measured the neural activity of each dogs in 32 trials for each of the object. The fMRI showed that the neural activation for the reward stimuli was stronger compared to the stimulus that signaled no reward. Among the dogs, four showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise from their owners.

On the other, nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the stimuli that signaled food and praise, while the remaining two dogs consistently showed strong activation when shown the food stimuli.

Furthermore, the dogs also underwent a behavioral experiment, by familiarizing to a room with a simple Y-shaped maze. On the end of one of the paths lies a bowl of food while on the other end was the dog's owner with their backs toward the dog. The dog is then released into the room to freely choose from the two paths. When the dogs chose their owners, they will be praised.

The researchers discovered that the paths taken by the dogs during the behavioral experiment correlates with their neural activation in the first experiment. This suggests that dogs have different neurological profiles from one another.

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