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Defense Department-Funded Study Finds that Dogs Relish Praise and Hot Dogs

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

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We are going to be hosting a friend’s cockapoo while our friend is traveling, and the dog visited last night to meet and greet our family. I came in late, after everyone had been hugging and fussing with the dog. As I looked at her, I’m sure my face gave away my attitude to dogs, which is that I love them. She responded by immediately running right up and begging to be played with, and I was reminded of something we all know if we know dogs at all — they read faces very well.

It wasn’t just me, of course. She was friendly and affectionate with everyone in our family. “But,” said my wife, “she’ll love me the best because I’ll be the one feeding her.”

Not so fast, says a new study by Emory University scientists and funded by, wouldn’t you know it, the government (specifically the Office of Naval Research, as they note at the end of the research article). Doug Axe caught this one, pointing out in a tweet:

They trained dogs to be still for an MRI machine, which by itself is no trivial accomplishment. From the New York Times story, a Q&A with neuroscientist Gregory Berns:

It really started with the mission that killed bin Laden. There had been this dog, Cairo, who’d leapt out of the helicopter with the Navy SEALs.

Watching the news coverage gave me an idea. Helicopters are incredibly noisy. Dogs have extremely sensitive hearing. I thought, “Gee, if the military can train dogs to get into noisy helicopters, it might be possible to get them into noisy M.R.I.s.”

You can see why this was of interest to the Navy (???). Dr. Berns continues:

We did an experiment where we gave them hot dogs some of the time and praise some of the time. When we compared their responses and looked at the rewards center of their brains, the vast number of dogs responded to praise and food equally.

Now, about 20 percent had stronger responses to praise than to food. From that, we conclude that the vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food.

Another thing that we’ve learned by showing pictures of objects and people to the dogs is that they have dedicated parts of their brain for processing faces. So dogs are in many ways wired to process faces.

There you have it. Dogs read faces, and relish praise and hot dogs. In fact, according to the announcement of this research from Emory, “Ozzie, a shorthaired terrier mix, was the only dog in the experiments that chose food over his owner’s praise 100 percent of the time.” They add that Ozzie’s owner isn’t hurt at all by this (so he claims) and loves the dog anyway.

So in any event, it is not true that dogs only value us for giving them food. I will now underscore this to my wife, pointing out that I have Defense Department-funded research to back me up.

This is indeed cutting-edge science. Given that, did you wonder if they’d bring evolution into it? Of course they do:

Berns heads up the Dog Project in Emory’s Department of Psychology, which is researching evolutionary questions surrounding man’s best, and oldest friend.

You can’t leave evolution out. Oh, and don’t misunderstand about the hot dogs. They also experimented with Pupperoni dog treats, as they emphasize in the original research journal article for Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience:

We emphasize the consistency of our findings, despite using different food and social reward types in the imaging (hot dog and verbal praise) and behavioral paradigms (Pupperoni and brief petting).

I don’t mean to make too much light of this — no doubt there’s an important application or revelation here that is escaping me at the moment. I would be curious, however, to know how much the Navy paid for the study.

Photo: Ozzie, who likes hot dogs more than praise, by Gregory Berns via Emory University.