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A dog's preference for certain foods has a direct impact on motivation

Recent research conducted by the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary, and Symrise Pet Food, France, has provided new understanding into how dogs’ food preferences and motivation are reflected in their brain activity. Specifically, their caudate nuclei, a brain region associated with reward processing, show marked variations in response to different food qualities.

This study, which cleverly integrates behavioral observations with advanced neuroimaging techniques, offers a unique perspective on the relationship between food quality and canine motivation.

Learning how food motivates dogs

Experiment 1: Behavioral assessment

The first part of the study involved a group of twenty family dogs. These dogs were initially trained to unwrap a box. They were then introduced to associate specific tones with two types of food: smoked ham, a highly rewarding treat, and fiber cookies, a less desirable option.

The crucial part of this experiment was to measure the dogs’ motivation to obtain the associated food. This was determined by the speed at which they unwrapped the box when one of the sounds played. “The results showed that the dogs unwrapped the box quicker when the sound associated with the higher quality food, the smoked ham, was played,” the research team reports.

Experiment 2: Neuroimaging analysis

A different group of twenty family dogs participated in the second experiment, which focused on brain activity. These dogs were trained to remain still in a brain scanner. Initially, they were exposed to both sounds without any specific meaning attached. After participating in the wrapped box experiment, they underwent another scanning session, this time with each sound linked to either smoked ham or fiber cookies.

The primary focus here was on changes in the caudate nucleus during these sessions. The study found that, compared to the first session, there was a heightened response in the caudate nucleus in the second session, particularly to the sound associated with smoked ham.

Dog food, motivation, and the brain

Dorottya Ujfalussy is the senior author of the study. She explains, “While prior research has primarily focused on how the dog brain responds to rewards versus non-rewards, our study takes a step further, delving into the representation of two food rewards varying in quality.”

Not all dogs showed the same performance, with significant variation in how quickly they unwrapped the boxes. The study observed a clear positive correlation between the behavioral performance of the dogs and the differentiation in their brain responses.

Laura V. Cuaya is the first author of the study. She remarks, “It is exciting to be able to ‘see’ how dogs represent different foods in their brains and observe how the quality of the food influences their motivation. We were surprised to discover a distinct positive correlation between the behavior of the dogs and their brain representations.”

Cuaya explains further, “The direction of this relationship still intrigues us. Based on our data, we cannot determine whether a more distinct brain representation of both sounds enables a better behavioral performance or if it operates in the reverse. It’s likely that this process is not solely unidirectional.”

Implications for canine training and motivation

This study offers a unique insight into how dogs’ preferences and motivations towards food are intricately linked to their brain activity. It opens new avenues in understanding canine cognition and behavior, especially in terms of how they perceive and value different types of rewards.

Ujfalussy further expounded, “Our findings highlight that the caudate nuclei not merely process rewards, but also distinguish between rewards based on their quality.”

These findings could have significant implications for training methods and enhancing the well-being of domestic dogs around the world.

The full study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Video Credit: Eötvös Loránd University/ Symrise Pet Food 

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