A new study has shown that, for the majority of dogs, a verbal reward lights up their brains just as much, if not more, than a treat.

By Alex Heigl
August 22, 2016 12:00 PM

Speaking as a human, which would you rather have: Food or praise?

The answer to that is question is probably deeply rooted in your psyche, but for dogs, it turns out to be quite a bit less complicated than that.

A long-running study out of Emory University has revealed that for dogs, vocal praise means as much, if not more, than food as a reward.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns started the “Dog Project” five years ago. He’s the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Brain. Berns talked to dozens of dog owners in the Atlanta area and culled a group of 30 dogs that would “stay” long enough for an MRI.

Obviously, not a lot of sporting dogs made the cut. “These are not super-athletic, high-drive dogs,” Berns told the Washington Post. “Lots of retrievers.”

Berns and his team held a trio of experiments with 15 dogs scanned each time. Every dog had to go into the MRI and stay in the down position for three 10-minute scans. For the first go-round, the dogs were shown a hairbrush, a toy car and a toy horse. After the first object, they were given a hot dog, verbal praise for the second and nothing for the third.

For 13 of the 15 dogs, their brains lit up just as much, if not more, than for the food.

The second experiment looked to verify that first pattern. But as a twist, in the second go-round, a subset of dogs didn’t get praised. Strangely, the results were “almost identical” when looking at their brain activity, Berns said. “The dogs who responded more strongly to praise in the first experiment were more disappointed for not getting praise,” he explained.

The results have far-ranging implications in dog training. For one thing, “A dog with high preference for social reward might be best suited for certain therapeutic or assistance jobs,” the study reads. “While a dog with less of a neural preference for social reward might be better suited for tasks that require more independence from humans, like search-and-rescue dogs or hearing-assistance dogs.”

So save a trip to the pet store and just load up on compliments the next time you have to teach your dog a new trick. Your wallet will thank you.