When training dogs, a pat on the head may be more effective than a treat. A new study suggests that most dogs respond more positively to praise than to food.
Researchers scanned (pictured) the brains of 15 dogs of various breeds while presenting objects paired with rewards.
For example, after the scientists showed the canines a toy car, their owners would praise them.
In other tests, the researchers gave the dogs a toy horse and a piece of hot dog. The scans revealed that when praised, 13 of the dogs showed equal or greater levels of brain activity in the region that controls decision-making and signals rewards than when they received food, the scientists will report in an upcoming issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
In a follow-up test, the team set up a Y-shaped maze with the dogs’ owners on one side and a bowl of treats on the other.
Although most of the canines preferred to go the direction of their owner for a belly rub, the dogs that showed a greater reaction to food in the scanner consistently chose food in the maze. The scientists suggest using brain scans to determine preference could be used to improve the way service jobs are assigned to working dogs.
Therapy jobs with close human contact might better suit dogs that have a higher preference for praise, whereas dogs that don’t could succeed in more independent roles like search and rescue, where receiving a treat after a job well done would keep them motivated.
At the very least, the study supports how important social interaction is to dogs—and provides a healthier alternative to treats, too.