What's on Your Dog's Mind?

Brain scans unleash canine secrets

Can I have a treat, please?: Emory researcher Greg Berns gives his dog, Callie, a hand signal while she's inside an fMRI, part of a study to determine dogs' brain activity patterns.
Bryan Meltz

When your dog gazes up at you adoringly, what does it see? A best friend? A pack leader? A can opener?Dog lovers make all kinds of inferences about how their pets feel about them, but no one has captured images of actual canine thought processes—until now.

Emory researchers have developed a methodology to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species. The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

In May, the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) published the result of their first experiment, showing how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners.

“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project. “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.”

Key members of the research team include Andrew Brooks, a graduate student at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta.

Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project: Callie, a two-year-old feist, or Southern squirrel-hunting dog, that Berns adopted at nine months from a shelter; and McKenzie, a three-year-old border collie that already has been well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate. Both dogs were slowly trained to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.

The researchers aim to record which areas of a dog’s brain are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?

In the first experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another meant it would not. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.

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

Berns is a neuroeconomist who normally uses fMRI technology to study how the human mind works. His human brain-imaging studies have looked at everything from why teens engage in risky behavior to how adults decide to follow, or break, established rules of society.

But are there actual merits, beyond curiosity, to better understanding the minds of our canine companions? “To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that dogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least ten thousand years, and by some estimates thirty thousand years,” Berns says. “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 project came to Berns about a year ago, when he learned that a US Navy dog was a member of the SEAL team that killed Osama bin Laden.

“I was amazed when I saw the pictures of what military dogs can do,” Berns says. “I 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.”

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