No matter how close you are with your canine companion, it’s hard to shake that sneaking suspicion that your dog only sees you as a walking treat dispenser. The results of a recent study should provide insecure dog owners with some comfort: When presented with different rewards, most dogs preferred praise over food, Science reports.

For the first half of the study [PDF], which will be reported in a future issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers monitored the brain activity of 15 dogs. The four-legged subjects were first shown a toy car and praised by their owners. Later, they were given a toy horse with a piece of hot dog. Thirteen out of the 15 dogs showed an equal or greater response in the area of the brain associated with decision-making and reward when reinforced with praise rather than treats.

A different experiment had the dogs positioned at the beginning of a forked maze with a bowl of food at one end and their owner at the other. In most cases, the dogs passed up the treats and chose the path that led the pets to their favorite human. The dogs in the minority who veered towards the food bowl turned out to be the same subjects who reacted stronger to food in the first test.

A study of 15 may not be large enough to support to any solid conclusions, but it does reflect previous research suggesting that the love between dogs and their owners is mutual. A BBC2 documentary, which aired in February, found that levels of oxytocin (or the “cuddle hormone”) increases by about 57 percent in dogs after playing with their people. (In cats, the chemical showed a measly 12 percent boost.) So if you’re looking to save money on dog treats, keep in mind that your presence in your dog’s life may be rewarding enough.

[h/t Science]

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