Do You Want to Know What Your Dog’s Really Thinking?

If you’re a dog parent, you may spend a lot of time wondering what you’re dog is actually thinking about …or you already have some good theories about what goes on in your canine companion’s mind and can easily recognize their different expressions and behaviors and attribute thoughts to them. Researchers at Emory University decided to explore this issue by capturing images of what’s really happening in those adorable little heads and recently published the results in the The Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE).

Gregory Berns, lead researcher and director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy, was inspired after learning about the dog involved in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and theorized that if a dog could be trained to jump out of a helicopter, that it would be possible to teach one to sit still in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, and he was right.

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” said Berns. “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.”

The research team included Andrew Brooks, a graduate student, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta. The two dogs involved were Callie, Berns’ two-year-old rescued Feist and McKenzie, a three-year-old Border Collie who was trained in agility and owned by Melissa Cate. Over a period of two months, both were taught to crawl into the fMRI scanner and sit completely still with their heads on a chin rest, while wearing ear muffs to protect them from the loud noises of the machine.

“In the experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals, with the left hand pointing down signaling the dog would receive a hot-dog treat and the other gesture (both hands pointing toward each other horizontally) meaning “no treat.” When the dogs saw the treat signal, the caudate region of the brain showed activity, a region associated with rewards in humans. That same area didn’t rev up when dogs saw the no-treat signal,” according to Scientific American.

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” said Berns. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

So far, the experiment showed that what they were attempting can be done and has opened the door to further studies to answer a myriad of questions that the researchers were left with, such as how do dogs distinguish humans, and is it by vision or smell? Is human language processed as arbitrary sounds, or do dogs have neural structures that respond in a deeper manner to language? Do they have empathy? What is the difference between how dogs represent humans and other dogs or animals?

“Ultimately our goal is to understand the human/dog relationship from the human perspective,” said Berns.  “People believe their dog understands and loves them, and we want to know what the dog is thinking and processing. The simplest question we can answer soon is whether it is all an act — whether they act all cute and stuff to get food, or is there something more than that.”

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141 comments

Sandra Penna
Sandra Pennaabout a year ago

I agree with Shalvah L.: "I feel very bad for these dogs who will go through the MRI to please their OWNERS.
All this experimenting has nothing to benefit dogs!
“Ultimately our goal is to understand the human/dog relationship from the human perspective,” said Berns. He said so himself it's all about HUMANS.
Leave the dogs alone! Not necessary to abuse them to satisfy your curiosity!"

Shalvah Landy
Past Member about a year ago

I feel very bad for these dogs who will go through the MRI to please their OWNERS.
All this experimenting has nothing to benefit dogs!
“Ultimately our goal is to understand the human/dog relationship from the human perspective,” said Berns. He said so himself it's all about HUMANS.
Leave the dogs alone! Not necessary to abuse them to satisfy your curiosity!

Amy L.
Amy L.about a year ago

My dog created the E = mc2 equation! So I know he's a thinker!

Duane B.
.2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Laura mendez velazquez

Pues independientemente de lo que mi perro piense, lo amo incondicionalmente!!!!! Es muy muy interesante saber qué piensan, sin embargo, creo se requiere un poquito de empatía para saberlo: miran con curiosidad... se les "va la mente a otro lado", envidian un premio, desean beber agua.... Más allá de lo que piensen, sienten igual que nosotros y por eso son dignos de amor y respeto. Es necesario que nosotros, los humanos, nos pongamos en sus zapatos, que nos "hagamos más perros" y hagamos a un lado "lo racional"

Patricia Guilhem
Patricia Guilhem2 years ago

Les chiens, comme les chats, sont des animaux extraordinaires. Si nous les aimons, ils nous rendent cet amour au centuple. Ils nous comprennent et nous les comprenons si nous sommes proches d' eux.

Fiona T.
Fi T.2 years ago

It's worth getting to know

Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis3 years ago

Oh, and my dawg can tell time and understands completely the correct order of the things. 7:30 pm is dinner time, 7:33 is go outside to potty time, 7:48 is come back in and be brushed time, 7:55 is time to fight getting eyedrops, then 8:02 is time to jump on the bed and go to sleep for the night. He's 85 pounds of smart, opinionated, and pampered 3 year old puppy.

Sandra Lewis
Sandra Lewis3 years ago

My dawg is always thinking about eating--always. Everything has to do with eating. Same as my husband. My cats are always thinking about such simple things as nihilistic existentialism juxtaposed against the utter realism of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, after just one more nap, please.

Debi C.
Deborah C.3 years ago

Interesting. If you pay super close attention to your dog and have a close relationship, I think you can tell what they are thinking a lot of the time. They are very good at communicating, if people would only learn how to listen!