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We knew it: science shows dogs love us even more than they love food

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Deborah Cicurel
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Any proud dog owner knows that their pup loves them, no matter how much detractors will disagree. We know they love us just as much as we love them (and most importantly, that they don't only adore us because we feed them) - and now good old science is here to back us up.

A new report in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has shown that dogs seek praise just as much as they seek food, with brain scans of man's best friend showing that some even prefer praise to treats. 

Gregory Berns, the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Brain and the mastermind behind the experiment, convinced 15 dog owners to let him scan their pets' brains so he could try to decode what they were really thinking. He wanted to figure out whether they really care about our praise, or whether it's all about getting that elusive treat in your hand.

“There’s a long-standing debate about dogs: why do they do what they do?” he told The Times. “They are very dependent on humans. Is that dependency just about food - do they act cuddly and lick us primarily because they have learnt that’s how to get food? Or do they get an intrinsic reward just from social contact?”

Cute Puppies Dogs

To conduct his experiment, Berns trained the dogs in two separate tasks: firstly, he taught the dogs to associate a pink toy with getting food, and a blue toy with getting praise. The pups then underwent an MRI scan while being shown either the pink toy, the blue toy and a hairbrush, rewarded with food, praise and nothing respectively. At the same time, their brain activity was analysed by scientists.

While nine of the pets showed no preference either way, finding both food and praise to be equally satisfying, and two pups preferred food over praise, an unprecedented four dogs preferred their owner's praise to getting food.

While we feel enormously happy to know just how much our dogs love us, Berns told the newspaper that this wasn't the sole reason for the experiment. “The take away for dog owners is: know what kind of dog you have," he said. "For most dogs, social reinforcement is at least as effective as food and probably healthier too.”

Cute Puppies Dogs Puppy Dog

Berns leads the Dog Project in Emory University’s Department of Psychology, which researches evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best friend, and has previously showed that dogs' brains responds "more strongly to the scents of familiar humans than to the scents of other humans, or even to those of familiar dogs".

“Dogs are individuals and their neurological profiles fit the behavioral choices they make," Berns added. "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 percent of the time. It shows the importance of social reward and praise to dogs. It may be analogous to how we humans feel when someone praises us.”

Now this is science we can get behind. 

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Deborah Cicurel

Deborah Cicurel is a freelance journalist who writes about everything from lifestyle and travel to fashion and entertainment. She loves spicy maki rolls, cosy socks and visiting far-flung destinations, and is unable to walk past a dog on the street without stopping to befriend it.

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