Dogs love food and their favourite reward is a tasty treat, right? Well, according to a new study by scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, USA, published in the journal Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, food is not their main motivation.
Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and lead author of the Dog Project research, said: “We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself. Out of the 13 dogs that completed the study, we found that most of them either preferred praise from their owners over food, or they appeared to like both equally. Only two of the dogs were real chowhounds, showing a strong preference for the food.”
Canines are no strangers to scientists studying their behaviour. One of the most famous was Ivan Pavlov who, in the early 1900s, showed that if dogs associate a particular stimulus with food (in this case the ringing of a bell) the animals salivate in the mere presence of the stimulus, in anticipation of the food.
Dogs value human contact
“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,” Berns says. “Another, more current, view of their behaviour is that dogs value human contact, in and of itself.” Berns and his team are providing a fascinating insight into the ever-evolving human-canine relationship, which has existed for thousands of years. “Dogs are hyper-social with humans,” he says, ” and their integration into human ecology makes dogs a unique model for studying cross-species social bonding.”
What does this tell us?
What the average dog owner can draw from all of this is that we can go easy on those treats. Despite those pleading eyes – which is your dog’s way of trying to get you to hand out more tasty morsels, a well-worn technique that they know works brilliantly on humans – giving your dog plenty of praise will be just as much a reward for them.
More questions, more answers?
The Dog Project 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.
According to Dr Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the average dog can understand about 165 words. Rico, a Border Collie, appeared on German TV in 2001 showing he could recognise 200 words. Rico held the record until Chaser, another Border Collie, displayed knowledge of an incredible 1,022 words. Will the Dog Project find a dog who can beat that? And will the project go on to look at how well humans understand canine? It seems that dogs already know a great deal about us and we’re only just starting to catch up when it comes to understanding them…
The dogs helping science
The Dog Project is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend. The project was the first to train dogs to voluntarily enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner and remain motionless during scanning. All the animals that participated in the study were pet dogs living in the Atlanta area. The owners and dogs volunteered their time and put in several months of training before the experiment even began. The training was done with positive reinforcement, using play and food to form pleasant associations with the testing situation.