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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