The Loh Down On Science

Can we tell what dogs are thinking?

Figure 1

Berns et al., PLOS, 2012

Fig. 1. Training and task for dogs in the MRI scanner. (A) Callie in the training apparatus. No restraints were used. Dogs were free to exit the apparatus at any time. (B) McKenzie inside the MRI. Her handler is giving a hand signal that denotes upcoming “reward.” Person in the photograph has given written informed consent for publication. [Caption modified from original for brevity.]

Are dogs people too?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University thought so.  At least, he suspected that dogs have emotions like we do.  But only a mind-reader could know for sure.

So Berns did something no one had tried before:  He trained dogs to go into an MRI scanner.  Which is no walk in the dog park, even for humans.  You have to lie absolutely still, in a tube, and the noise is loud! 

But with the help of a dog trainer—and ear muffs—Berns’s own dog, Callie, learned to lie still in the scanner for thirty seconds.  When she saw a hand signal that meant “hot dog,” her caudate nucleus lit up.  That’s the same part of the brain that lights up in humans when we see something we like. (Mmmmm, hot dogs!)

Other dogs—same story.  Caudates lit up when they saw treats, smelled familiar humans, or saw their owners step into view.

Berns says this shows that dogs’ emotional responses could be comparable to those of a human child.

Great—one more emotional creature in the house.  Quick—hide the hot dogs!

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