According to ScienceMag a recent study strongly indicated that dogs might actually prefer the praise of their owners over treats. Despite the long-standing use of treats and food by us ‘Hoomans’ to help train our canine companions it would appear that the positive reinforcement of a belly rub or a pat on the head is actually more effective in melting most of your fuzzy children’s hearts.
In the first half of the study (soon to be published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience) the brain activity of fifteen canines was monitored by researchers. After being shown a toy car the canines were then praised by their respective owners. Later, they were each given toy horses with a piece of hot dog. Of the fifteen dogs in the study thirteen exhibited a greater or equal response in the area of the brain associated with reward and decision-making when the reinforcement was praise from their owner vs. food/treats.
The second half of the experiment positioned the dogs at the start of a maze that forked in two directions. One led to a bowl of food and the other led the dog to his or her owner. Most of the dogs chose their owner over the food bowl. The dogs who chose the food were the same subjects who favored treats in the first half of the study indicating that some dogs are just food motivated.
Of course fifteen is not a large enough sample size to reach absolute conclusions but it gives us further understanding of the nature of the dog/owner relationship. The affection does appear to go both ways.
There are always skeptics who question the ability of our furry children to truly reciprocate the feelings of love we have for them but anyone who has returned to their dog from a long absence knows the reaction of their furry child. It’s pure excitement and joy. Watch this dog after he is reunited with his owner after being stolen from him two years before.
So dogs prefer praise. What about Cats?
Are cats on the same level as the canine companions we love so dearly or do they merely tolerate our existence in exchange for food? The latter is apparently much more likely if another recent study is any indication.
In February of 2016 BBC2 broadcast Cats V. Dogs, a television documentary that explored this question by measuring the level of oxytocin in cats and dogs. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter produced in the brain when we feel an attachment to someone or something. Oxytocin levels in humans rise by up to 60% when we see someone we love.
Researchers tested saliva samples from ten cats and ten dogs before and after playing with their owners for a ten minute period. The dogs showed an increase of 57.2% after the playful interaction with their owners. For cats it was just 12%. In fact, only 50% of the cats tested showed any rise in their oxytocin levels at all. Moo (from the video below) appears to be the exception to the rule.
Again, these small sample sizes can’t back up definitive conclusions but they do seem to support the notion that most of our cats view us as food dispensers above anything else. Compared to dogs they appear to be fairly indifferent to us. As someone who has had multiple cats and multiple dogs I don’t think these theories are too far from the truth. Do I think my cats have loved me on the same level that my dogs have? Maybe — but who can be sure? Look at those glares…