Everyone who owns a dog at one point or another will often find himself or herself pondering the question, what is my dog thinking? It seems like one of those questions that will never really have an answer, or is it? A research team at Emory University Center for Neuropolicy led by Dr. Gregory Berns set out to answer this very question. Dr. Berns theorized that if a dog could be trained to jump from a helicopter, then surely it could be possible to train a dog to sit still during a functional magnetic resonance scan (fMRI), his hypothesis ended up being correct.
“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 earmuffs 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.”
While this provides an amazing breakthrough and could one day serve to answer a myriad of questions as to what exactly your dog is actually thinking, this type of science is still in its infancy and it could be a few years before the first set of data comes back. Even still, with promising short term results it may not be long until you will be able to answer the question of what exactly your dog is thinking.