You or Food – Which Would Your Dog Choose?

It’s no secret that many dogs have a small obsession with food. Whether it’s time for dinner, time for a treat, or time to sneak food from the table, all bets are off when it comes to dogs and their motivation to eat.

Besides loving food, all dog owners are convinced that their dog loves them dearly. But how much does your dog actually love you? Or is it that your dog loves the food they get from you more?

A recent study at Emory University set out to answer these questions. The department of Psychology studied 15 dogs in a two part experiment to test whether they would show preference towards food or towards their owners.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” Gregory Berns told Phys.org. Berns is a neuroscientist at Emory University and lead author of the research. “We found that most of [the dogs] 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.”

Before the experiment could even begin, the dogs had to be trained for it. This study is the first of its kind that trained dogs to voluntarily enter an MRI machine, according to Phys.org. The dogs had to learn to stay still while scans were done on the MRI machine, without any restraints or sedation.

Next the dogs had to learn some basic visual associations, so the
experimenters could communicate effectively with them. The dogs were taught that if they were shown a toy truck, they would receive a food reward. If they were shown a toy knight, their owner gave them verbal praise. And if they were shown a hairbrush, they were given nothing. The hairbrush signal was to serve as a control.

Once the dogs learned what each object meant, it was time to run the first part of the test. Each dog went into the MRI scanner, and stayed still and calm, just as they had been taught to do. They were then shown each object a series of 32 times. When each object was shown, the MRI machine conducted scans of their brain activity in response to being shown the objects.

So what do you suppose these dogs were thinking? Well it turns out that 9 of the 15 dogs showed equal excitement for food and praise from their owner. 4 of the 15 dogs showed more excitement about praise than food. And 2 of the dogs showed more excitement towards food than towards their owners. But that’s not to say those two food motivate pups showed no excitement for their owners at all! They simply got more excitement from food.

Then it was time for the second phase of the experiment – the behavioral portion. Each dog was placed into a simple, Y-shaped maze. At the end of each branch of the Y was either their owner or food. Their owner was sitting down, with their back turned towards the dog. Dogs were then given the opportunity to choose to go towards their owner or towards the food. If the dogs chose the owner, the owner would give them praise.

It turns out that the “response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” Berns told Phys.org. “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 percent of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

So what does this mean for our furry friends? Well according to the Mother Nature Network, researchers believe that this information could help us determine what types of dogs will be best suited for certain jobs. For instance, that dog you know who would do anything for attention and praise? They might be well suited for a therapy dog job. Or maybe you know a dog who is much more motivated by food than people? That kind of motivation can be great for search and rescue positions, where dogs need to be more independent.

But this study is still rather small, and only the first of its kind. Further research needs to be done to determine its usefulness for dogs in the workforce. For now, the researchers simply write that, “Our findings support the use of social praise as a reward in dog training. For most dogs, social reinforcement is at least as effective as food – and probably healthier too.” Positive reinforcement is the key! So give a little love to your furry friend.

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