2 scientific techniques for dog food palatability testers

The pet food industry may benefit from scientists’ growing understanding of how dogs’ minds work.

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photo by Andrea Gantz
photo by Andrea Gantz

The pet food industry may benefit from scientists’ growing understanding of how dogs’ minds work. For example, Brian Hare, PhD, associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University Duke University and founder of Dognition, believes the testing methods that he and other scientists use in their own research on canine cognition could be adapted to dog food palatability testing.

Hare delivered the closing keynote address at Petfood Forum 2018.

“A dog that's really super motivated for food is going to be really good at solving certain types of problems,” he said. “Now the question then becomes, if you were in the pet food industry how do you use the revolution we've had in understanding dog psychology during the last 20 years?”

Currently pet food manufacturers can measure dog preferences through a variety of means, such as one- and two-bowl palatability testing and behavior analysis. However, Hare suggested that methods used in canine cognition research could allow pet food product developers to go beyond measuring if a dog eats that food versus another, or how the animal interacts with a particular food or treat.

Scientists look at if dogs prefer different items by how much time they spend trying to get those foods or treats versus other items, Hare said. For example, Greg Aldrich, PhD, Kansas State University pet food program coordinator, uses kibble-dispensing chew toys to measure just that. Aldrich compares the time dogs spend gnawing at those toys to determine how much they like the food or treat within.

Hare explained two other research techniques that could help with new dog food product development.

1. Discounting tasks and dog food palatability

“If I was in the pet food industry, I would be using discounting tasks to test for pet food preferences,” said Hare. “A discounting task is one where you have an immediate reward or you have to wait for a delay before you get the reward… It’s the same thing we do to look at economic decision making in people.”

Considering how motivated dogs can be to eat a food, if they are willing to abstain from one formulation in anticipation of another, it really says something about that second product. Essentially, the dog is willing to suffer through the wait because it would rather get that second dog food.

“So if someone wants to say ‘I have a new product that dogs are going to love,’ I say show me your discounting data,” said Hare. “I want to know your discounting curve and I want to know your indifference point relative to the other product.”

For example, in a discounting test, a new dog food could be tested against a leading brand. The amount of time dogs are willing to wait for that new food can give a strong indication of how well that product may perform on the market.

“If that discounting curve is where it should be, you're going to crush it because dogs actually are willing to wait a delay,” he said.

2. Risk-taking test for dog food palatability

Another scientific research technique that pet food palatability testers could use is a risk-taking paradigm, said Hare. In these tests, a dog has the option of eating a known amount of a certain food or taking the chance of getting a lesser reward in hopes of getting a better one. For example a dog could be offered an a full bowl of kibble A. The dog could be trained that if it chooses not to eat this food, it could get a full bowl of kibble B or a paltry single piece of kibble A. If the dog is willing to take that chance, it suggests that it really likes kibble B.

“You can have a fixed option versus a variable so you could see how well how could a dog really feels about an option,” Hare said. “You can find out how good dogs really feel their new product is because you have the old product be the fixed option. The dog knows if it chooses that, it gets it, but the variable option is the new thing which you [the tester] think is really, really good.”

“If they're willing to risk losing the old brand to get a little of the new brand you know you've got a winner.”

Using these two techniques, a dog food palatability tester can ask dogs all kinds of questions about their preferences, Hare said.

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