Why do pets prefer food over toys?

Dogs are as fond of toys as little children; just give them a new one and they will take possession and refuse to give it up, until they get tired of it. But a new study by psychologists at the University of Florida has found that there is something that they prefer even more – food!

Nine out of 10 dogs chose food over toys in the first study of its kind, that allowed dogs to pick their favorite food and favorite toy, then put them head-to-head in an experiment simulating a training experience. Most dogs responded more strongly to the food reward.

“I was surprised, but nobody’s looked at how dogs will work for toys versus food before,” said Dr. Nicole Dorey, who performed the study with her students and other collaborators from the Florida Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. It was just published in the journal Animals under the title “Efficacy of Edible and Leisure Reinforcers with Domestic Dogs.”

Food was found to be a more effective reinforcer for dog behavior compared to toys and other items. These findings have important implications for dog owners and trainers, suggesting that using food as a reinforcer may yield better results in training dogs, the team wrote. 

How was the study conducted?

The researchers recruited 10 pet dogs from the local area. Each one 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 its 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 they favorite treat.

An illustrative image of a Great Dane dog. (credit: INGIMAGE)

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 concluded. “This is what’s done with search and rescue dogs, they start really early with toys as a reinforcer.”

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