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Less is More For Hungry Dogs

Do you train with a mix of high and low value treats? That might not be as rewarding as you think. By Claudia Bensimoun


Have you ever wondered about your dogs food choices? Would he prefer a larger choice of varied treats, or a few favorite treats? In a new study at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Kristina Pattison and Dr. Thomas Zentall researched whether our furry best friends preferred baby carrots and string cheese, or just string cheese on its own. They did this by testing 10 dogs of different breeds. These findings were published in the Springer's Journal Animal Cognition. 

Lisa Chavez's Havanese, Ebony, poses here with some of her favorite treats. Photo courtesy of Lisa Chavez.

All the dogs enjoyed both the string cheese and baby carrots. Most of them also showed a preference for string cheese. Yet, when they were given the option of choosing between one piece of cheese, or both the cheese and the carrot, the results surprisingly demonstrated that 9 out of 10 dogs would choose the cheese only. These results demonstrated that dogs would rather choose what they wanted and get less food overall than choosing more food. Known as the less is more effect, scientists say that this is a mental shortcut that displays a desire for the qualitative, instead of the quantitative options. 

 Katherine Dattoma's Border Collie, Ginger, loves to eat chicken. Photo courtesy of Kayla Dattoma.

Humans and monkeys also demonstrate a less is more effect. We tend to prefer a small amount of good quality products, instead of a larger quantity of mediocre products. Monkeys have been observed to prefer one grape over another with a slice of cucumber, yet will eat both the grapes and cucumbers.

Ellinor Schmitz's Bella, a Papillon, prefers new treats over ones she's had before, but lobster is one of her favorites! Photo courtesy of Kim Butler and Courteous Canine.

Dogs demonstrated that they preferred the quality of the cheese with the carrot, rather than the sum of all the foods together. Dr. Pattison and Dr. Zentall believe that dogs find it easier to judge the average quality of the foods offered, instead of the overall quantity of the alternative foods offered. When dogs have to make fast decisions, the less is more affect comes into play. These fast choices come in handy when dogs eat together, since dogs that hesitate may actually lose out on food to other quicker-thinking dogs. Quick decision making skills also help wildlife to make fast decisions rather than becoming prey. Nonetheless, 1 in 10 dogs preferred the cheese-and-carrot combination. This suggests that motivation in dogs does play a role in decision making. "The present research indicates that the less is more effect is not unique to humans and other primates but can occur in other mammalian species, at least those that are socially organized such as carnivores like wolves, dogs and jackals," explains Pattison. She suggests that further research is needed to find out if the "less is more" effect also occurs in less socially organized species such as rats, or non-mammalian species such as birds.

Deborah Davidson Harpur's Rat Terrier, Rickie Roo, says that meatballs are yummy! Photo courtesy of Robert Moray.

Take this study into consideration when preparing and offering your dog treats as rewards while training. A mix of high value and low value treats might not be as motivating as using fewer treats of your dog's favorites. 

Melissa Hagood's Delilah loves anything sweet potato, pumpkin, or peanut butter flavored! Photo courtesy of Melissa Hagood.

Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.

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