Given the choice, many dogs prefer praise from their owners over food, suggests a 2016 study published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The study is one of the first to combine brainimaging data with behavioural experiments to explore canine reward preferences. For the experiment, the researchers began by training the dogs to associate three different objects with different outcomes. A pink toy truck signalled a food reward, a blue toy knight signalled verbal praise from the owner and a hairbrush signalled no reward, to serve as a control. The dogs then were tested on the three objects while in an MRI machine. Each dog underwent 32 trials for each of the three objects as their neural activity was recorded. All of the dogs showed a stronger neural activation for the reward stimuli compared to the stimulus that signalled no reward, and their responses covered a broad range. Four of the dogs showed a particularly strong activation for the stimulus that signalled praise from their owners. Nine of the dogs showed similar neural activation for both the praise stimulus and the food stimulus. And two of the dogs consistently showed more activation when shown the stimulus for food.

The dogs then underwent a behavioural experiment. Each dog was familiarized with a room that contained a simple Y-shaped maze constructed from baby gates: One path of the maze led to a bowl of food and the other path to the dog’s owner. The owners sat with their backs toward their dogs. The dog was then repeatedly released into the room and allowed to choose one of the paths. If they came to the owner, the owner praised them.

“We found that the response of each dog in the first experiment correlated with their choices in the second experiment,” Berns says. “Most of the dogs alternated between food and owner, but the dogs with the strongest neural response to praise chose to go to their owners 80% to 90% of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs.”

The experiments lay the groundwork for asking more complicated questions about the canine experience of the world. The Berns’ lab is currently exploring the ability of dogs to process and understand human language. “Dogs are hypersocial with humans,” Berns says, “and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding.”

— Source: EurekAlert!

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