The Mind of a Dog Revealed

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

It’s finals week at Western Washington University (WWU), and in a small alcove just off the main entrance of the library there is a mob of students. They are not studying. They are hanging around, slumped against the wall, standing in circles, chatting, and texting. They are waiting. For what? They’re waiting for two golden retrievers named Arizona and Ducky.

Arizona and Ducky are members of Pet Partners, a nonprofit organization that utilizes companion animals for therapy and community service. This semester, Pet Partners joined with Dogs on Call, an all-volunteer organization of certified therapy dogs, to create the Campus Canine Program, a program geared to help students cope with the stress of finals by letting them spend a little time with man’s best friend. Every day, the students stop by the library to pet, cuddle, and romp with a different therapy dog.

As Deborah Hall, executive director of Dogs on Call, describes it, response to the Campus Canine Program has been “huge.” Hall cites an email from one of the dog team handlers, Pat Holmes. “The kids loved the dogs,” writes Holmes. “I kept hearing, ‘This is the best thing that WWU has ever done!’ ” Holmes goes on to write, “Most talked about how happy the dogs made them.”

It’s no surprise that dogs make us happy. A wide range of research has been done on how dogs affect the human brain, as well as our emotional and physical well-being. But until this point, the research has been one-sided. We’ve only been able to study our brains.

All of that is about to change.

Now, with the help of a new study out of Emory University, we’ll finally be able to see what our dogs are thinking, and how their brains process the world around them. Among many other questions, we’ll be able to answer, “Do we make our dogs as happy as they make us?”

The Study and the Results

Dr. Gregory Berns and his team at the Center for Neuropolicy, have created a methodology by which they are able to train a dog to stay motionless long enough to collect usable MRI images of the dog’s brain. They have managed to do this without sedating or restraining the dogs, a key factor in being able to see how the dog’s brain reacts to human cues.

The test subjects were Callie, a 2-year-old feist of indeterminate pedigree, and MacKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie. The care with which Callie and MacKenzie were handled was extraordinary. Elite pet trainer Mark Spivak was enlisted, and each member of the team followed strict rules about working with the dogs. Berns writes, “The possibility of future canine MRI must be tempered with the acknowledgement that dogs will do almost anything humans ask of them, and this makes them particularly vulnerable to exploitation.”

So during the study, three main principles were put in place which Berns and his team hope will function as guidelines for the ethical treatment of dogs during future scientific study:

  • First, no harm should come to the dogs. Berns and his team were especially careful to protect both Callie and MacKenzie’s extremely sensitive hearing. “Considerable effort was spent fitting and training the dogs to wear ear muffs and head wraps that mitigated the effects of the scanner noise,” says Berns.
  • Secondly, the dogs were never restrained. Berns and his team felt strongly that the same freedom given to humans should be extended to dogs, as restraining them “violates a basic principle of self-determination.” And so both Callie and MacKenzie were free to leave the scanner at any point.
  • Finally, the team of scientists used positive reinforcement to train the dogs to stand still. Berns and his team recognize that there may be times in the future where, for the sake of the experiment, scientists will want to learn how punishment manifests in the brain of the dog, but for this study and for future studies, Berns cautions against the risks of punishment. He writes, “The use of punishment should be carefully weighed against the alternatives, especially since the animal training literature does not indicate that punishment leads to more effective learning than positive methods.”

With the use of positive reinforcement and their ethical principles, Berns and his team were able to teach the dogs to hold still for periods of up to 24 seconds. That’s as long as any human is able to hold still. With the advantage of this window, Berns and his team decided to teach the dogs two different hand signals, indicating food reward and no food reward, and scan their brains to see how the dogs processed these cues. Through the MRI, they were able to scan and pinpoint just what part of the dog’s brain lit up when recognizing the sign for reward.

The fact that they were able to gain usable images is a gateway thrown open for future scientists who wish to study all aspects of the dog’s brain and behavior. As Berns writes, “Canine MRI is not only possible, but paves the way for studying canine social cognition.” With the help of the MRI we will finally get to discover how our dogs process the world around them, and not just the world, but us.

A Mirror of Man

Dogs are the oldest domesticated species, having lived with us from as far back as 9,000 to 30,000 years B.C. “Because of their prolonged evolution with humans, many of the canine cognitive skills are thought to represent a selection of traits that make dogs particularly sensitive to human cues,” writes Dr. Berns. In other words, dogs and humans have shaped each other’s evolution, to some extent.

Studying the dog’s brain for the sake of the dog’s brain is fascinating in and of itself, but even more so is the ability this study has to show us ourselves through the brain of man’s best friend.

“Dogs are intensely visual and pay attention to our facial expressions and where we look and point,” writes Berns. How do they represent these actions? How do dogs distinguish humans, and is it by vision or smell?” The questions go on. With the use of this new technology, we will be able to investigate how dogs perceive human language and if their brains hold certain structures that “respond in a deeper manner to language.” We’ll be able to see how our dogs’ brains represent us, versus another dog or another animal. The potential for this methodology is endless and exciting.

As Berns puts it, “Because humans, in effect, created dogs through domestication, the canine mind reflects back to us how we see ourselves through the eyes, ears, and noses of another species.”

So as the students turn out in healthy numbers to pet, cuddle, and talk to the dogs on call, it becomes evident to the team handlers that the students are not the only ones benefiting from the contact. There is a distinct give-and-take going on, a mutual dopamine boost worn into the grooves of the centuries-old relationship between human and dog.

One such dog, Fisher, a burly Newfoundland, was a big hit.

His handler, Lindy Christopherson, reports that Fisher has between 10 and 20 students around him the entire three hours he is at the library. He is “bomb proof,” Christopherson says. “Kids were crawling under him — at my suggestion — for photo ops, using him for a pillow, scratching and petting and brushing every inch of his big body. He was so happy.”

Now, thanks to Berns and his team, we no longer have to wonder just how happy Fisher is around the students, we’ll be able to see the dopamine light up his caudate.

(Editor’s note: This article is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)

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