Imagine your precious fur baby in a Y-shaped maze. He or she stands at the end and then must make a choice at the crossroads: one branch leads to a bowl of delicious meat goo and the other leads to you, their loving human companion. Which will they choose?
In a new study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, neuroscientist Gregory S. Berns and his Dog Project crew conducted just such an experiment. But first they took 13 fMRI-trained dogs and taught them to associate three different objects with three different outcomes: a pink truck meant a food reward, a blue knight toy scored some verbal praise from their owner and a hairbrush earned them nada. (If you're curious about how you get a dog fMRI-trained, you can watch Berns' YouTube video, set to U2's "With or Without You" no less.)
The researchers tested all three objects on the dogs in an fMRI for close to 100 trials per animal, then they sat back and observed the neural fireworks. To no one's surprise, the reward stimuli — the truck and the knight — resulted in stronger neural activation than the hairbrush. Four of the dogs preferred the praise-stimuli objects, two preferred the food-stimuli objects, and the other nine showed similar activation for both.
They followed this experiment up with the Y-shaped maze and found that the dog's behavioral choices matched up closely with their previously observed neural activity. Most of the dogs were willing to go either way, to food or owner, but the praise-centric dogs rushed to their owners 80-90 percent of the time.
So it would seem your praise is on par with your dog's love of food, though the degree of preference can be highly variable from dog to dog. Future studies may reveal how breed, rearing and genetic profile play into the situation, as well further illuminate the evolution of the domestic dog.