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

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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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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7:05AM PDT on May 5, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

11:14AM PDT on Apr 23, 2013

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"

10:15AM PDT on Mar 29, 2013

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.

3:24AM PST on Feb 23, 2013

It's worth getting to know

6:40PM PST on Dec 21, 2012

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.

6:35PM PST on Dec 21, 2012

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.

1:00PM PST on Dec 20, 2012

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!

9:16AM PDT on Jun 14, 2012

It would be good to communicate with our pet dogs. Cats are snobbish.

8:59AM PDT on Jun 14, 2012

This is so exciting. Anyone who has a dog already knows the answer to this research: Of COURSE they empathize with us. If they want to write journals about it though, why not? They look like they're very loved and well cared for.

12:16PM PDT on Jun 8, 2012

Dianne, any dog lover would agree that a dog should not be left crated for most of his life. However, a properly crate-trained dog will see his crate as a comfortable place of refuge that is his very own space. One of my dogs will often get off the couch of his own accord and choose to go curl up in his crate. If the door is inadvertently left closed and he can't get in, he gets very distressed and will whine and paw at the door and try to open it himself.

I'm pretty sure I know what my dogs are thinking most of the time. One of my dogs is an absolute genius at figuring out "what comes next". And having several dogs, I think that some dogs are very empathetic and some aren't. They all have a unique personality.

What I would really love to be able to do is to explain things to my dogs. It breaks my heart to forbid a dog from doing or having something that he shouldn't do or have, and he doesn't understand WHY. I always wish I could make them understand my reasons for things.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
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Colleen H. Colleen H. is an Online Campaigner with Care2 and a recent transplant to San Francisco from the East... more
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