Food vs Toys – Scientists Reveal What Dogs Truly Prefer

Dog Jumping Treat

A study by the University of Florida found that nine out of ten dogs preferred food over toys in a training simulation. Conducted with ten pet dogs, each dog was allowed to choose their favored food and toy. In further tests, dogs gave up earlier when striving for a toy reward compared to a treat. The research suggests that while toys can be effective training tools, food remains the most compelling reward for most dogs.

Man’s best friend is as treat-obsessed as we all thought.

In a recent study conducted by psychologists at the University of Florida, 90% of dogs opted for food over their favorite toys. During the experiment, which mirrored a training scenario, the dogs were given a choice between their favorite food and favorite toy. The majority showed a greater inclination towards the food reward.

“I was surprised, but nobody’s looked at how dogs will work for toys versus food before,” said Nicole Dorey, a lecturer in the UF Department of Psychology who performed the study with her students and other collaborators.

Experiment Details

The researchers recruited 10 pet dogs from the local area. Each dog was shown six food items – including treats, cheese, carrots, and hot dogs — and six toys, such as a tennis ball, a squeak toy, a plastic bone, or a stuffed animal. Each dog then had a chance to choose their favorite food and favorite toy.

In another set of experiments, the dogs had to work harder and harder for their reward. Most dogs gave up earlier when offered a preferred toy reward than when given their favorite treat.

Comparing Preferences

Other studies have shown that dogs might prefer human attention to food.

“I think the next study should look at all three – attention, food, and toys – and what dogs really like best when training,” Dorey said.

Some dog trainers suggest using toys instead of food in training to avoid excess calories and to make the experience more fun for the dog. If dog owners want to follow this advice, the key is to not have toys competing with food, say the researchers.

“You can definitely train your dog with toys if you start really early,” Dorey said. “This is what’s done with search and rescue dogs, they start really early with toys as a reinforcer.”

Reference: “Efficacy of Edible and Leisure Reinforcers with Domestic Dogs” by Xenabeth A. Lazaro, John M. Winter, Jonathan K. Fernand, David J. Cox and Nicole R. Dorey, 30 September 2023, Animals.
DOI: 10.3390/ani13193073

The study was led by undergraduate UF students Xenabeth Lazaro and John Winter, who have since graduated. Collaborators from the Florida Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University also contributed.

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