Does Your Dog Prefer a Belly Rub Over a Treat?

By December 23 | See Comments

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Does Your Dog Prefer a Belly Rub Over a Treat?

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When humans started the process of domesticating dogs, they practically laid the groundwork for a strong and enduring cross species social bond that would only get stronger over time. Wherever humans go, dogs are wont to follow. If it has ever occurred to you that dogs are more interested in you than the treat in your hand, you'd be glad to know that it is not entirely in your imagination.Animal researchers at Emory University just discovered that dogs value affection more than food. Animal trainers who have successfully trained dog to perform tasks to food rewards might find this a little hard to believe. But science seems to disagree. The results of the study were published in a paper that explored the subject of treats versus praise in detail, and they incontrovertibly point to the fact that dogs do find human affection more intrinsically rewarding. Apart from reminding us of the social origins of dogs as a species, this discovery could also provide a lot of valuable tools for training working dogs. It bears mentioning that this is not the first study of its kind, but it does certainly add a lot to our understanding of dog behavior.

Three experiments

The researchers involved in the study used functional magnetic resonance imaging in 15 wide awake dogs to explore the neural basis behind their preferences for food reward and social interaction. In the first experiment, they used readings of the ventral caudate as a statistical measure of intrinsic reward and compared the region's activation to conditioned stimuli like praise, food or nothing. Compared to the control stimulus, it was observed that the caudate was much more active to rewards and even more so when it came to praise. This was uniformly the case in 13 of the 15 participating dogs.The second experiment was done to confirm the results of the first. To make sure that the differences in the readings was driven by the intrinsic value of praise, they withheld the praise on a subsection of trials. They noticed that there were considerable differences in the degree of caudate activation relative to withholding praise and the results had a very strong correlation to the differential activation in response to the conditioned stimuli in the first experiment.In a final experiment, they had the participating dogs complete a Y-shaped maze in which they had to choose a treat or their owner. The results of the MRI scans correctly predicted their response here as well, thereby demonstrating that this trait has deep-seated biological routes.The testing was done over a number of sessions to make sure that the dogs get a break in between and do not get tired of being handled or frustrated of the food. Since the responses were consistent across the sessions, it is not just an afternoon whim that drove the dogs to prefer praise to treats. This study conclusively proves that early socialization and positive enforcement is much more important than the food we dole out to our dogs during meal time.

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