Do you really want to know what your dog is thinking? What if it's really cynical, fully aware that it can gull you into free food and shelter in return for some silly rolling around with its legs in the air? What if it´s just waiting for you to croak, so it can get its paws on those juicy femurs? What if, ugh, when it licks its genitals, it's actually thinking about YOU?
Emory University researchers have developed a new 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), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain.
The Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) is publishing the results 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. "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."
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.
The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains 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 signal meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another signal meant it would not receive one. 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."
Dog lovers may not need convincing on the merits of researching 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 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 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."
"We know the dogs are happy by their body language," says Mark Spivak, the professional trainer involved in the project. Callie, in particular, seems to revel in the attention of breaking new ground in science.
"She enters the scanner on her own, without a command, sometimes when it's not her turn," Spivak says. "She's eager to participate."
Source: Emory University