You know all those expensive treats you give your dog? The ones that are healthier than your food, are made of human-grade ingredients and are gluten-free? Yeah, you may be wasting your money. New research shows that your dog may be more content with a pat on her head than those high-end biscuits.
Called the “Dog Project” the study began five years ago when Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns wanted to figure out if the dog-human bond was just based on us being the food provider, or if pups value the relationship more, among other hypothesis.
For this particular study, the team recruited 15 dogs (all low key) to undergo a fMRI scan, a procedure that examines brain activity and detects changes in blood flow. To date, it is the biggest canine sample size for this particular type of MRI.
Berns and his team broke down their research into three different experiments. First, Berns dogs had to lie in an MRI machine for three 10-minute sessions. The pups were trained to connect certain objects with outcomes. So, when a dog was shown a pink truck, she was rewarded with food, a blue toy knight she received praise and a hairbrush served as the control, meaning no reward was provided. The scientists discovered 13 of the 15 dogs were equal or more stimulated by the praise than the treat.
For the second experiment, a group of dogs didn’t get any praise. Berns and crew found that the dogs who responded better to praise in the first experiment were more upset when they did not get praise during this round.
For the third experiment, the dogs were outside of the MRI machine and put inside a Y-shaped maze. The dogs had to choose between a bowl of food or praise from their owner. Scientists found that how they dogs performed on the first two test was a strong predictor of what they would choose in this round.
The team concluded that pats on the heads and “good boys” are just as good as treats.
While these findings can help dog owners with positive-reinforcement training (and save a buck or two), it is also useful for determining the path a service dog should take.
“A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” the study states. “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.”