Some Dogs Prefer Praise to Treats

When humans domesticated dogs, they laid the groundwork for an intense social bond that would endure for centuries. Where humans go, dogs are eager to follow. And if it sometimes feels like your dog is even more interested in you than in food, it’s not just your imagination.

A paper published in ”Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience explored the subject of praise versus treats in detail. Researchers found that for some dogs, human affection was more compelling than a snack. Aside from reminding us of the deep social origins of the species, this information could prove valuable for training and selecting working dogs.

This isn’t the first study of its kind – here’s one on petting versus praise – but it adds weight to our growing understanding of canine behavior.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to scan the brains of alert, unrestrained dogs while they responded to different prompts. In a set of three experiments, they exposed the dogs to a series of conditions that involved receiving treats, praise or nothing.

They found that both treats and praise activate similar areas of the brain, and in the case of some dogs, receiving verbal praise was actually more rewarding than getting a snack.

After the fMRI testing, researchers also had the dogs complete a Y-maze in which they chose to receive food or go to their owners. The outcomes of the fMRI scans tended to predict their response in the maze, as well, illustrating that this trait has a deep biological root.

The testing occurred over the course of several different sessions — both to give the dogs a break and to ensure that they didn’t get tired of food or frustrated by being handled. Responses remained consistent, so it wasn’t the whim of an afternoon that drove dogs to express more interest in praise than treats, or vice versa.

These findings have interesting implications for understanding the deep connection between dogs and humans.

Through centuries of breeding, dogs have developed a variety of behaviors that work to their advantage, from willingness to learn tasks to being physically affectionate. While a dog who enjoys being loved even more than snacking might be a sweet trait in a pet, it’s a serious quality in a working dog.

The researchers posit that the ability to use brain scans to predict some elements of behavior could be useful when it comes to breeding and selecting working dogs, who need to undergo extensive training and exhibit very specific behavior to succeed on the job.

Of course, it also has implications for regular pet dogs, too.

We already know that dogs respond to treats and that people can train dogs to do amazing things with positive reinforcement and snacks. This research suggests that food rewards might not be as necessary as we think they are. And that could be good news for millions of overweight dogs who may have indulged a little too much.

This research also illustrates that early socialization and repeated positive reinforcement can have a powerful impact on dogs — as we handle our pets, they may learn to love us even more than the food we dole out at meal time.

Photo credit: Petr Kalaš

75 comments

Nellie K Adaba
Nellie K Adaba1 years ago

Great to know.

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Melania Padilla
Melania P1 years ago

Not surprised; every pet and animal in general is different. Very interesting, sharing as well

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Connie Palladini
Connie Palladini1 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Margie FOURIE
Margie F1 years ago

Just like children. Thank you

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Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Joy T.
Joy T1 years ago

Hmmmm...

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Maxine Stopfer
Maxine Stopfer1 years ago

I think furbabies like praise and treats. Or at least all the dogs I've ever had do.

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Arlene N.
Arlene N1 years ago

Can you please provide statistics rather than say "some dogs?" What percent? There are a multitude of people who can't train their dogs who will say: "See. I told you praise works but my dog is just stupid." By being so general you've just done a horrible disservice to a multitude of rescued dogs that don't train well with praise only and who will probably go back to the "pound" because their adopters can't control their dogs when the only reward those people use is praise. Then their dogs aren't responding to training as quickly as the people would LIKE so the people get frustrated and either start using punishment or return them. My experience says food rewards work better for the majority of dogs.

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Wendi M.
Wendi M1 years ago

TYFS I have one dog that just wants trays and the other could care less he wants to play catch be brushed play tug just be played with ;)

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Terri S.
Terri S1 years ago

Interesting!!

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