Study Confirms Dogs Prefer Food Over Toys

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic
Switlana Sonyashna/Shutterstock

If someone asked you to pick between your favorite toy or your favorite food, what would you choose? If your answer is food, you’re not alone - researchers have found that dogs prefer their favorite food over their favorite toy. 

It’s no secret that dogs like playing with their toys, but the goal of this new study was to determine whether toys make an effective training reward.

In the first study of its kind, researchers from the University of Florida found that nine out of 10 dogs will choose food over toys. 

For the purposes of this study, researchers used social media advertisement and word-of-mouth to recruit 10 dogs from the local area. The dogs participating in the study come from a range of breeds, including two German shepherds, a labrador, a German shorthaired pointer, and six mixed breeds. 

Researchers allowed the dogs to pick their favorite food and favorite toy. Each dog was shown six food items - including a hotdog, cheese, carrot, hard dog treat, soft dog treat, and kibble - and six toys -  such as a ball, squeak toy, bone, tug toy, stuffed animal, and empty plastic water bottle. 

Each dog had an opportunity to pick their favorite food and favorite toy. 

During the next phase of the experiment, the dogs were given progressively more difficult tasks to get a reward. The dogs were rewarded with either their favorite food or favorite toy. 

The researchers discovered that nine out of 10 dogs gave up on the task earlier when rewarded with their favorite toy, as opposed to when given their favorite food. 

These findings show that dogs are more motivated to work for food than toys.

Previous studies have shown that dogs prefer human attention to food but, until now, there has been little research into how dogs rank their favorite toys. “I was surprised, but nobody’s looked at how dogs will work for toys versus food before,” said Dr. Nicol Dorey, the lead author of the study.

The researchers hope that these new findings could be useful for dog owners trying to train their dogs. “Understanding a dog’s preferred reward can be essential for shaping behavior effectively,” concluded the researchers.

Some dog trainers recommend using toys instead of treats while training, to prevent excess calorie intake and to keep the training more fun for the dog. If you decide to train your puppy using toys, the key is not to offer food at any step of the training. 

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

The researchers noted that more research is needed, especially since human attention acts as a strong reinforcer when training dogs. “I think the next study should look at all three - attention, food, and toys - and what dogs really like the best when training,” said Dr Dorey. 

Regardless of what the next study finds, I’m sure my pooch would pick food over me and toys any day of the week. What about your dog -  are they team food or team toys?

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

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