Beyond our mutual affection, there are plenty of other traits that dogs and humans share: We can read each other’s facial expressions, for example. We can both be kind of self-absorbed sometimes. We both, in our own ways, are fascinated by poop. We’re both suckers for praise — and, for that matter, we’re also suckers for a tasty treat.
Those last two, though, have just become a little more nuanced: New research shows that most dogs would actually take affection — whether it’s a verbal good boy or a belly rub — over food. In a forthcoming study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a team of researchers used fMRI to scan the brains of 15 dogs as their owners either praised them or fed them a piece of hot dog. As Science reported, for 13 of the 15 dogs, the areas of the brain responsible for reward and decision-making had equal or greater activity when the dogs were praised, compared to when they were fed. In a second experiment, the study authors put the dogs in a simple maze, with a bowl of food at the end of one path and their owners at the end of another; again, most dogs went for their owner, with the few that had preferred food in the scans as the only exceptions.
As the researchers wrote, the study underscores just how much dogs value social interaction, but it also has practical implications beyond helping owners better understand how to train their pets: “The scientists suggest using brain scans to determine preference could be used to improve the way service jobs are assigned to working dogs,” Science noted. “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.” Though both options, it bears noting, are probably much better motivation than a hug.