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Dogs Like Treats, But Here's What Really Gets Their Tails Wagging

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Beagle study shows dogs get more excited when they earn their treats than when they get them for doing nothing. | patty_c via Getty Images

You want your dog to love you the best, so you sneak her the occasional scrap under the table (when no one else is looking).

Sure she loves it, but new research suggests there's something Fifi craves even more. According to a new study conducted in Sweden, dogs get more excited when they work to earn their treats.

For the study, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala trained 12 beagles to perform a variety of tasks, which included pressing levers, pushing objects, and playing a key on a toy piano.

A week later, each dog was brought to a testing room and was presented with one of these tasks again. If a dog performed a task successfully within five minutes, she was given one of three rewards: food, human contact, or contact with another dog.

Then a "control dog," who had not been trained to perform the task, was brought into the testing room and rewarded after a certain amount of time regardless of what she did in the room.

What did the researchers find? The dogs who were rewarded for performing tasks were more active and wagged their tails more than the dogs who received rewards at random, the researchers said. Hardly surprising, the dogs were most excited for food.

“The experimental animals in our study were excited not only by the expectation of a reward, but also about realizing that they themselves could control their access to the reward," the researchers wrote in a paper describing the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition.

The dogs who had no control over when they would get a treat chewed more on the devices in the testing room, which the researchers interpreted as "signs of frustration... in response to the unpredictability of the situation."

What explains the effect? The researchers theorize that dogs enjoy learning new things because evolution favored that tendency -- previous research showed that emotional arousal boosts learning and memory, and thus survival.

"These results support the idea that opportunities to solve problems, make decisions, and exercise cognitive skills are important to an animal’s emotional experiences and ultimately, its welfare,” the researchers wrote.

So next time you want to sneak Fifi that scrap, make her work a little for it first.

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