Like any relationship, dog owners are always curious to know what their dogs are thinking or feeling. As humans, our curiosity to understand our pets and build legitimate bonds with our pets is part of our intrinsic need to connect with sentient beings. Thanks to new research, dog owners can get a glimpse into the thoughts of their canine friends.
Research gets inside the minds and emotions of dogs
THE MINDS AND
Like any relationship, dog owners are always curious to
know what their dogs are thinking or feeling. As
humans, our curiosity to understand our pets and build
legitimate bonds with our pets is part of our intrinsic
need to connect with sentient beings. Thanks to new
research, dog owners can get a glimpse into the
thoughts of their canine friends.
Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory
University, identified whether dogs really love their
owners — and the answers may reassure dog owners
that they really are man’s best friend.
DO DOGS REALLY LOVE US?
In 2011 Dr. Berns noticed that trained dogs were part of the raid against Bin Laden.
When Berns saw that dogs could be trained to withstand the noise of a helicopter,
although they have very sensitive hearing, he thought a dog could be trained to
withstand a noisy M.R.I. machine.
That was when Berns conceived the idea to find out what
dogs were thinking and feeling. As a neuroscientist, he’s
seen how M.R.I. studies have helped researchers
understand the anatomy of the human brain in the
emotional process. He believed the testing could show
similar research about dogs and if they had analogous
functions in their brains like humans.
But there was also an emotional component to Berns’
reasoning. After his own dog, Newton, passed away, he
wondered if he had loved him or only showed affection
toward him because he fed Newton on a daily basis.
In order to process what dogs were thinking in an M.R.I. scanner,
Dr. Berns needed dogs to stay still long enough to show them
pictures. He worked with a dog trainer to help dogs get comfortable
with the M.R.I machine. After he built an M.R.I. simulator in his
basement and helped his other family dog, Callie, acclimate to the
noise, teaching her to climb stairs, and recline into a headrest and
be motionless for increasing periods of time. After three months of
practicing each day — and perfecting the training system — they
searched for local volunteer dogs to practice the study.
Since 2012, Berns and his team have trained and
scanned about 90 dogs, never restraining or
drugging any. If a dog wants to interrupt the study
and roam around, they are given full autonomy.
During testing, they used similar neuroscience tests
completed on people. They trained dogs to do the go,
no-go test which measures the ability of subjects to
delay gratification. First, they trained the dogs to
poke targets with their nose whenever they hard a
signal for go; a whistle. The no-go signal was arms
raised in a cross. When the dogs saw the arms raised
while hearing the whistle, it was still a no-go signal.
On the scanners, the researchers could see that the
no-go signal stimulated the prefrontal lobe with
more activity. It showed that dogs use corresponding
parts of their brain to solve tasks like humans do.
THE EXPERIMENT CONT
FOR THE LOVE OF DOGS
To more clearly examine how dogs’
affection for humans, the researchers
conducted experiments where they
offered hot dogs part of the time and
praise at other intervals of the
experiment. After comparing the
responses, they saw that the large
majority of dogs responded to praise
and food equally. About 20% of dogs
had a stronger response to praise than
to food, concluding that a large
number of dogs love humans at least
as much as they love eating food.
During these experiments, they were also able to
show pictures of objects and people to dogs. They
found that dogs have dedicated areas of their brain
for processing faces, so dogs are naturally wired for
processing, recognizing, and reacting to human
faces which helps them build bonds with us.
There are practical implications for this
new research. It can be useful for
training service dogs. Working with
Canine Companions for Independence,
Berns and his team were able to
identify which puppies were likely to
be successful. Using the M.R.I scans on
the dogs, they were able to identify the
best candidates to act as service
workers had more activity in the brain
region that had the most dopamine
receptors. They also had less activity
that indicates fear and anxiety.
Ultimately, this could help save
trainers time and money, and help dogs
find the right living situation that fits
USING THE RESEARCH
In animal shelters, this research could be used to help
animals who have aggression issues. As we learn
more and more how the brains of animals function,
we can offer them better care alternatives. These
studies can not only provide insight into the ways
animals react to humans, but also the way we treat
animals. It can help reshape how we interact with
animals and how they’re treated in industrialized
centers, especially now that research reinforces that
animals are cognizant of their own suffering.
As science helps us understand
more about animals, perhaps we
can help other people build
more empathy to the way they
treat innocent creatures and
reaffirm our bonds with man’s
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