Health & Wellness

Our dogs really do love us! Praise is as big as treats for your pet

All the cynics who insist your dog sticks around only because you feed it are wrong. A new study suggests our furry friends often care just as much about receiving praise from their owners as they do about getting a doggy treat. In fact, some may actually value their owner’s approval more than any goodies they can gobble down.

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How do we know what’s going on in a dog’s head? Researchers at Emory University have found a way to train dogs to get into an MRI machine, lie still and have their brains scanned.

The new research “demonstrates that some dogs are very human oriented and form very strong attachments to their owners,” an expert says.

After peering into 15 pooches’ brains, the researchers determined the majority felt just as much pleasure in anticipation of an owner praising them as they would from a yummy morsel, according to a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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Gregory Berns / Gregory Berns
A dog lies in an MRI machine while researchers peer into its brain.

Of course, there were a couple of dogs who were totally food driven and others who were more tickled at the thought of being told “Good doggie” than in anticipation of a treat.

“Dogs are not one thing or the other,” says study coauthor Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University. “There’s a spectrum. Many prefer food and praise equally. Some are pure chowhounds. Others are just love bugs. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. People are kind of the same way. There is a spectrum of things that motivate us.”

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To get a better sense of what dogs think of us, Berns and his colleagues ran some experiments.

For the first experiment, 15 dogs were trained to associate certain objects with specific outcomes: a pink toy signaled a food reward was coming; a blue toy knight presaged verbal praise from the dog’s owner; and a hairbrush, as a control, signaled no reward at all.

The dogs were asked to hop into the MRI and during the scan, researchers focused on the response of the dogs’ caudate, a region that earlier studies had shown is the canine reward center, as each toy was presented on a long stick (the human holding the stick was out of sight). The procedure was repeated 32 times for each toy.

Nine of the dogs showed equal signs of pleasure whether the toy signaled praise or food. Four showed a stronger reaction to praise than to food, while two consistently showed a bigger reaction to food than to praise.

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Courtesy of Gregory Berns
Scientists are learning about the thoughts of dogs from dogs who've been trained to lie in an MRI machine to get their brains scanned.

As a check on the results of the MRI, the researchers ran another experiment. This time the dogs were led to a room with a maze that ended with a choice: a big bowl of food or their owner sitting in a chair with their back to the action.

Sure enough, the dogs whose brain scans lit up most brightly at the thought of owner praise made a bee-line to their person. The ones who clearly preferred food, went straight for the bowl. The rest alternated between food and owner during the test runs.

“Reviewing the videos, you could see some of the dogs really struggle,” Berns says. “They wanted the food. But they also wanted their owners.”

The new research “demonstrates that some dogs are very human oriented and form very strong attachments to their owners,” says James Serpell, a professor of animal ethics and welfare, and director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania.

“They find positive acknowledgement from their owners to be very rewarding and they respond very strongly.”

The findings make a lot of sense to Serpell.

“From the perspective of the co-evolution of dogs and humans, you just can’t envisage a relationship lasting as long as it has if it were solely based on humans feeding dogs,” he says.

“We’ve been selecting for the type of animal that finds the attention of the human intensely rewarding in and of itself. Those are the kinds of dogs that will stick with you through thick and thin, even if there are a few lean days when you can’t afford to feed them.”

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