Dogs Love Owners More Than They Love Treats, New Study Says

scientific experiment of mri scans shows how dogs love their humans

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Canine research suggests dogs truly love their owners. MRIs and behavioral studies show that dogs prefer their favorite humans more than treats or bowls of food. Evolution tells us more about dog behavior patterns.

Dog and owner cuddling together
Recent research identifying the genome of dog breeds has built a family tree of how all breeds have developed. Photo By Vitalii Matokha / Shutterstock

An analysis of several kinds of research on dogs has concluded that dogs really do love their owners or other favorite humans. While this may sound obvious, it contradicts a popular—albeit cynical—notion that dogs only think of us as tall servants who fill up their food bowls and walk them.

In one study, dogs were trained to remain still in MRI machines and then they were shown signals that indicated they would get a treat or would see their favorite human. For most dogs, their brains responded more strongly to knowing that they’d see their humans. In another, when given the choice between their human and a bowl of food, dogs picked their humans.

In her video series Dog Training 101, Jean Donaldson, founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, explained how dog evolution and other factors help account for their personalities.

Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

The 40-thousand-year evolution of dogs, as well as recent selective breeding by humans, has contributed to many elements of the modern dogs’ overall behavioral patterns. This acquired knowledge is not only recent for dogs, but is also found across the animal kingdom.

“It used to be thought in animal behavior that ‘lower’ animals had a lot of preprogramming and limited flexibility and that ‘higher’ animals had less preprogramming and more flexibility,” Donaldson said. “As it turns out, these two categories are much less mutually exclusive and usually intertwined. Dogs are a prime example.”

According to Donaldson, dogs are learning machines and have inherited action patterns from their ancestors that helped those ancestors survive and thrive in the ancient world. There are four categories of inherited behavior that solve important tasks of daily living for dogs. They are fight, flight, feeding, and reproductive behavior.

“Animals that fail to solve these problems of daily living—getting enough to eat, protecting themselves from becoming food for someone else, protecting themselves from injury and disease, and producing viable offspring—are out-competed on the evolutionary playing field,” Donaldson said. “Dogs are descended from an unbroken line of ancestors, every last one of whom passed this test.”

Born to Hunt

Domestication of dogs has eased the pressure for some traits while amplifying others. Additionally, different dog breeds still show evidence of different parts of ancestral feeding action patterns.

In wolves, the feeding action pattern begins with searching. They use their nose to follow prey for hours or even days. Next, they stalk—a stealthy approach to close the distance from the prey as much as possible. After that, a sequence of chasing and biting wears the prey down until it goes into shock, at which point the killing and eating begins.

“The original function of many breeds of dog derives from isolation and exaggeration of these elements,” Donaldson said. “For instance, scent hounds, such as beagles, bloodhounds, harriers, foxhounds, and coonhounds, live for their noses. They are driven to find trails of critters and follow them.”

On the other hand, when pointers, setters, and some spaniels stop and point, it’s an exaggeration of a stalking pattern that is so extreme they freeze in place. Stalking is also the foundation of the behavior of herding breeds, like border collies. Donaldson said that even though the utility of herding livestock is different to us than that of pointing where a bird may be hiding, the underlying action pattern is the same.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily