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Does Your Dog Want Treats...or Praise?

A study using fMRI found that dogs preferred praise from their owner over treats.

You may have seen the headlines in the news and social media over the last few weeks about your dog wanting praise more than treats. This assertion comes from a study through Emory University in Atlanta that was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory, and the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Brain, created the "Dog Project" about five years ago. In the project, Berns worked with a dog trainer to acclimate dogs to an fMRI machine and train them to lay down quietly for up to a half hour at a time. The goal of using the fMRI was to look at the brain of dogs while they experience a variety of potentially emotional stimuli. Some examples of items that were exposed to the dogs include toys, brushes, food treats, and verbal praise from their owners. An increase in neural activity in a specific area of the brain (the ventral caudate) during these exposures may indicate a positive preference and/or emotional state in the dog.

In the study that was published, 15 dogs were examined in three different experiments involving exposure to food or verbal praise, with a neutral object used as a control. The researchers found that their hypothesis about activity in the ventral caudate correlating with social preferences by dogs had "striking" results. The researchers also stated that "we suggest that there is a consistent neurobiological orientation toward social and food reward within individual dogs, but the degree of preference may be highly variable between individuals."

A drawback of the study is the small sample size, although the authors of the study state that this small size "compares favorably with most non-human imaging work using MRI or electrophysiology, and is consistent with prior canine fMRI studies. However, the breed of the dogs was not mentioned in the published study. In an interview with the Washington Post, Dr. Berns said that the dogs were "not super-athletic, high-drive dogs" because of their need for relatively calm dogs that could lie still in the fMRI for long periods of time. One could hypothesize that a similar study with a wider variance in breed, particularly with working and high-drive breeds, might reveal somewhat different results.

The practical aspect of the study is the scientific support for the use of rewards when training dogs, whether it's food rewards or praise, and that "the majority of our participants found social interaction at least as rewarding as food." This becomes useful support when working with dogs where treats may not be used, and reinforces the benefits of building our social attachment with dogs as part of our regular training regimen. You can read the full study at

Source: Cook PF, Prichard A, Spivak M, Berns GS. Awake canine fMRI predicts dogs' preference for praise versus food. (2016) Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience

Photo credit: New family member via photopin (license)

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