What Is Your Dog Thinking? New Research May Provide Answers

Dog Behavior

Story at-a-glance -

  • For the first time, humans are able to capture images of actual canine thought processes. Researchers at Emory University have developed a way to scan the brains of alert dogs to learn more about the workings of the fascinating canine mind.
  • The dogs in the initial Emory experiment were trained to respond to hand signals by their owners. One signal meant the dogs would receive a food treat; the other signal meant they would not receive one. Measured by an MRI, a specific region of the dog’s brains showed activity when they were given the hand signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.
  • The researchers hope to answer questions like: do dogs have empathy? Can they read their owners’ moods? How much human language do they really understand?

By Dr. Becker

If you’re a dog parent like me, I know you’ve probably wondered what your furry friend has on his mind as he goes about his day. Fortunately, we’re not the only ones wondering!

For the first time, humans have managed to capture images of actual canine thought processes. Emory University researchers have developed a way to scan the brains of alert dogs to learn more about the workings of the canine mind. The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

The Emory team was led by Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, and included Andrew Brooks, a graduate student at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer. According to Berns:

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog. As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously.

“We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.”

Study Suggests Dogs Pay Close Attention to Owners’ Communication Signals

The first experiment by the Emory researchers was designed to show how a dog’s mind reacts to its owner’s hand signals. The results were published in the journal PLoS ONE in May 2012.1

Two dogs were involved in the first experiment. One was a two year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog named Callie, who Berns adopted from a shelter when she was nine months old. The other dog was McKenzie, a three year-old Border Collie who was already trained in agility by her owner.

Both Callie and McKenzie were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI machine and stay completely still while the scanner measured their brain activity. The dogs were also trained to respond to hand signals by their owners. One signal meant the dogs would receive a food treat; the other signal meant they would not receive one. Measured by the fMRI, the caudate region of the dogs’ brains – the region associated with rewards in human brains – showed activity in both Callie and McKenzie when they were given the hand signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.

According to Berns, these results suggest that dogs pay careful attention to human signals, and these signals may have a direct association to a dog’s reward system.

The Emory Dogs Are Unrestrained and Willing Participants in the Study

The Emory researchers’ goal is to interpret the mental processes of dogs by studying which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, the questions they hope to answer include: Do dogs have empathy? Can they discern their owners’ moods? How much human language do they really understand?

According to Berns:

The dog's brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It's possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too."

The idea for the Emory dog project, as it is called, came to Berns when he learned that a dog working with the U.S. Navy had been with the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden. As he learned more about what military dogs are trained to do, Berns realized that “… if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, we could certainly train them to go into an fMRI to see what they’re thinking.”

All studies and experiments conducted for the dog project are approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of Emory. The safety and comfort of the dogs is paramount, and researchers wanted to insure they would be unrestrained and willing to enter the fMRI scanner on their own.

Callie and McKenzie were trained to wear earmuffs to protect them from the noise of the scanner, and they also learned to hold their heads perfectly still on a chin rest during the scanning process so the researchers could obtain clear images.

Callie, in particular, seemed to really enjoy being a part of the Emory experiment. “She enters the scanner on her own, without a command, sometimes when it’s not her turn,” says researcher Mark Spivak. “She’s eager to participate.”

MRI Results Suggest Food Is Not the Only Motivator of a Dog’s Behavior

In an interview with The Bark, Gregory Berns was asked why he disagrees with the notion that dogs simply love us for the food we provide and that most of their behavior is no more than an attempt to secure food treats.

Berns responded that this theory of dog behavior is the main reason he and his research team are using fMRIs to measure canine thought processes. He makes the point that we can project whatever intentions we like onto dogs, but since dogs can’t clarify the situation for us, it remains a philosophical argument.

But with MRI, Berns and his team can visualize how specific parts of a dog’s brain respond to stimuli like food and social rewards. By evaluating brain activity, they can infer how much of a dog’s motivation is about food rewards and how much is the result of social interaction with a human. According to Berns, “We’re finding strong evidence that it is not just about food.”

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