New research suggests that dogs are motivated more by praise than by edible treats.

The results of a study published online in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggest that your furry friend would prefer you to praise him rather than give him food. Study author Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, used MRI scans to analyze dogs’ brain activity while the animals were awake and unrestrained.

Do Dogs Want Treats Or Belly Rubs
Photo by Aine D, Flickr

Neuroscientist uses MRI scans to analyze dog motivation

Berns started working on the “Dog Project” five years ago, recruiting dozens of dog owners in the Atlanta area for the study. The neuroscientist, who wrote “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Brain,” said that he set out to study whether dogs place greater stock in food or praise.

“Is social reward on the same footing as food, or is it potentially more valuable?” he wondered. To get to the bottom of the issue, he studied dogs that would keep still for 30 minutes while they were awake, allowing the MRI to scan their brains. This made for a sample group made up of calmer dogs rather than high-energy breeds.

“These are not super-athletic, high-drive dogs,” he said. “Lots of retrievers.”

Experiments to find out whether food or praise is preferred

Three experiments were carried out involving 15 dogs each time. The animals were made to lay down in the MRI for three 10-minute periods while they were shown a hairbrush, a toy horse and a toy car. After one object they were given a hot dog, they were praised after another and nothing was given after the third.

In 13 out of 15 dogs the praise stimulated their brains just as much, if not more, than the food.

In a second experiment a number of the dogs were not praised. This led to “almost identical” results when looking at brain activity, according to Berns. “The dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment were more disappointed for not getting praise,” he said.

The third experiment took the dogs out of the MRI and into a maze, where they were made to choose between finding some food or receiving praise from their owner. The scientists say that the results of tests one and two were a “strong predictor” of what the dog would choose in test three.

Selecting service dogs may now be easier

Berns ultimately showed that dogs are most motivated by praise, and this could have important consequences for the training of both pets and service dogs. The results also inform the recent trend towards “positive training,” as owners now know that dogs are motivated by social rewards as well as edible treats.

The information could also assist in finding which dogs are best suited to being service dogs.

“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” the study notes. “While a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”

So for average dog owners who don’t have access to costly MRI equipment, is it possible to tell what motivates your pooch? “I think people have an intuition of that,” Berns said.

If you have been looking into effective ways to train your furry friend, it might be worth saving the money on treats and practicing praise instead.