What Do Dogs Want More — Praise Or Food?

Put down the treats. Dogs prefer praise over food, according to a new, almost unbelievable study.

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Who's been a good boy? Happy dog by Shutterstock
Who's been a good boy? Happy dog by Shutterstock
Stephanie Brown

You might be surprised to learn that Fido would rather you tell him he’s a good boy than toss him a treat.

Yeah, sounds a little hard to believe, but a new study, published online in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, found more dogs prefer praise over food.

Led by Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, researchers monitored dogs’ brain activity using an MRI scan to see how they responded to treats versus praise. (Only dogs who would willingly sit still in the scanner were chosen for the study, which was most likely a tall order.)

While in the scanner, dogs were shown a hairbrush, a toy car and a toy. They were given a hot dog following one object, praise after another and nothing for the third.

For 13 of the 15 dogs, their scans showed just as much — if not more — stimulation for the praise as it did for the food. Specifically, four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signaled praise. Nine showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. Two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food (we feel you, food dogs).

Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time. Via Emory University

Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time. Via Emory University

Researchers also conducted a behavioral study in which they took the dogs and put them in a room with a Y-shaped maze that had a bowl of food at one end and the dog’s owner, who would give them praise, at the other. Researchers determined that the outcome of the first test “strongly predicted” the dog’s choice, according to the study.

If dogs are primarily motivated by praise, that preference could help their owners better tailor their training methods, Berns told The Washington Post. The findings could also help identify potential therapy or 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.”

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