A dog's dilemma: Do canines prefer praise or food?

By Carol Clark | eScienceCommons | Aug. 16, 2016

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Chowhound: Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time. “Ozzie was a bit of an outlier,” Berns says, “but Ozzie’s owner understands him and still loves him.”

Given the choice, many dogs prefer praise from their owners over food, suggests a new study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The study is one of the first to combine brain-imaging data with behavioral experiments to explore canine reward preferences.

“We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University and lead author of the research. “Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them 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.”

Dogs were at the center of the most famous experiments of classical conditioning, conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s. Pavlov showed that if dogs are trained to associate a particular stimulus with food, the animals salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus, in anticipation of the food.

“One theory about dogs is that they are primarily Pavlovian machines: They just want food and their owners are simply the means to get it,” Berns says. “Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself.”

Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning, without restraint or sedation. In previous research, the Dog Project identified the ventral caudate region of the canine brain as a reward center. It also showed how that region of a dog’s brain responds more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs.

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