Good news doting dog owners: new research proves you’re more than a treat dispenser to your pooch. Given the choice, chances are your dog would prefer your praise over food. This surprisingly unsurprising revelation was the conclusion of a small scientific study conducted by neuroscientists from Emory University. These results have important implications for how we train and treat our canines.

Believe it or not, there are still a fair number of self-proclaimed animal experts who believe dogs see humans as little more than a food ATM. They cling to a debunked “pack mentality” and “alpha status” dogma that reduces our inter-species relationship to “who’s the boss” and “who-feeds-who.” Cohabitating with dogs is more complex than that.

For decades, many of us have preached a positive-reward, how-two-species-can-live-together-in-harmony teaching method that places praise above punishment and affection before confection. In other words, we shower our dogs with love whenever they perform a desired action and largely ignore the other stuff unless it’s injurious. This latest round of research reinforces that approach.

The research

The researchers wanted to explore if there truly was a “human-animal bond” or if this human-canine arrangement was based primarily on food. To do this, they trained 13 varying dog breeds to undergo MRI scanning. The first part of the experiment taught the dogs to associate three neutral objects with different results. A pink toy truck was paired with a food reward; a blue toy knight earned verbal praise from the owner; and a control trigger, a hairbrush, ended with no reward.

Each dog was tested 32 times in the MRI machine to determine what parts of the brain were activated with the objects. All of the dogs showed enhanced brain activity with the two reward cues. Four of the dogs exhibited an exceptionally strong neural response for the stimulus that was linked to praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar activity for both the praise and food stimulus. And two of the test dogs consistently demonstrated more activation when shown the food reward object.

The dogs then underwent a classical behavioral experiment. A simple Y-maze was constructed in a large room with one path ending in a favored food reward and the dog’s owner in the other. The owner made no sound and had their backs turned to the dog. The dogs were released into the room several times, and if they chose the owner they were praised.

The results 

“We found that the caudate response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment. 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.” states lead researcher Gregory Berns in an Emory University press release.

In simplest terms, this study concludes that many dogs prefer praise over food. At the very least, food and praise are extremely close for most dogs.

How to incorporate these findings into your daily life

As a pet obesity and nutrition expert, this study validates my belief that the majority of dogs would rather play with us or go for a walk than eat a dog biscuit. Too often pet parents take the easy choice and lazily reach for a treat when their dog really wants their attention and interaction.

This research also validates that praise is an important teaching tool. If you’re working with your dog on manners, tricks or modifying behavior, be generous with your compliments and compassion in addition to, or in lieu of, food rewards. As I teach my clients, “Praise the behavior you desire, ignore those you don’t.” Praise is powerful motivation for dogs.

As someone who shares my life with animals, I’m comforted that my dogs see me as more than room service. Like you, I feel a deep emotional connection with my pets that transcends treats and dinnertime. The human-animal bond is alive and well and continues to nourish hundreds of millions of us each day. That deserves a good scratching!

Sep 14, 2016

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