A research team at Emory University set out to determine whether dogs prefer food over praise from their owners.The original research publication was published in August 2016 and can be found at sciencedaily.com
As lead researcher and neuroscientist Gregory Berns explains to Science Daily, “we are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food or about the relationship itself.” Said differently, are dogs obedient because we feed them? Or do they truly love us and want to please us?
13 dogs were analyzed via brain-imaging data and behavioral experiments. In one experiment, dogs were given shown different toys. One toy signaled a food reward, a second signaled a praise reward, and the third resulted in no reward.
Out of the 13 dogs, 9 gave equal weight to the food and praise rewards. 4 dogs chose food over praise. No dog chose the toy associated with no reward.
In a second experiment, the dogs were put in a maze. Each time the dogs entered the maze, they had two potential paths: one to a bowl of food and the second to their owner who would offer praise. Similar to the first experiment, the dogs that strongly favored food tended to veer to the bowls. The dogs that more heavily weighed praise went to their owners.
This study illustrates how domesticated dogs have greatly evolved past their primitive days as wolves where food was the end game. Today, domestic dogs have evolved in a way where they, in many cases, value the human bond as much as they value food.
Remember this study next time you are training your pup. In addition to a small food reward, keep in mind that a joyful “good boy” praise goes a long way.