Dogs May Like Praise as Much as Their Treats

A small study finds that a pat on the head can go a long way
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 21, 2016 12:47 PM CDT

(Newser) – Scientists who've trained the first group of dogs to sit still in MRI machines so that their brain activity can be measured say they've made a striking discovery: Dogs may like to get attention as much as if not more than they like to get treats. Reporting in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, they say their small experiments lay the groundwork for deeper questions about how canines experience the world. "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," one of the researchers says in a press release. "Another, more current, view of their behavior is that dogs value human contact in and of itself."

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To test this, researchers trained 15 dogs to associate a pink truck with food, a blue toy knight with verbal praise, and a hairbrush with no reward. Over 32 trials they found that all dogs preferred a reward to none, nine responded to both, four preferred the blue toy knight, and just two preferred the pink truck that meant food, reports UPI. After identifying the canine brain's reward center, researchers also observed the dogs responding more strongly to the scents of humans they know than those they don't, and they next plan to investigate how dogs process human language. Meanwhile they conclude that dogs who prefer praise could be ideal therapy dogs, while those who want treats could be better suited for search and rescue, reports Mother Nature Network. Either way, they write, praise is "at least as effective as food—and probably healthier, too." (You may want to rethink hugging dogs.)

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