The next time your dog does something you like or is just better behaved, you might want to consider giving him praise instead of a snack. New research has found that dogs would actually rather get praised than getting a piece of cheese or chicken.
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The study, which is the first of its kind, studied mixed brain-imaging data from canines with a series of behavioral experiments, coming to the conclusion that dogs value the relationships that have with owners. In other words, we aren't all the sources of food that we thought we were.
"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 neuroscientist Gregory Berns from Emory University.
Berns' team studied 15 dogs in 100 separate trials. In those studies, only two of those dogs preferred food over praise from their owners.
To get an idea of what kind of owner behavior the dogs liked, researchers trained the dogs to associate three different objects with three different results: a pink truck meant food, a blue knight means verbal praise, and a hairbrush meant to reward at all.
Neural activity was recorded using an fMRI machine as the dogs were tested. Four dogs showed strong neural activation for praise and two had stronger stimulus for food, while in the others, the levels were the same.
Next, the dogs were shown around a Y-shaped maze, with one path leader toward food and the other leading towards the dog's owner. The same results - those that wanted praise went to their owners instead of the food.
The research suggests that the stronger neural stimulus spotted on the brain scans does have an affect on the way the dogs behave.
"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," said Berns. "Another, more current, view of their behaviour is that dogs value human contact in and of itself."
It is worth noting that the study of 15 dogs is small, and there is no proof this is the truth in all dogs.
The findings are published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.