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I have always considered myself a dog-lover. But I grew to love these beautiful creatures even more after a personal loss. By sheer accident, a few days after losing a dear human family member, the stork paid a visit to my canine family member. My father's life had ended, but my dog, Calli, gave birth. Her four little puppies provided an unexpected form of therapy for my family during this difficult time.

It’s clear what many of us humans feel towards dogs. Many of us love them. They can make us feel unconditionally loved, too. But what do dogs feel about us? Or about life in general?

No one experiment can answer these questions. But several scientists are trying to learn more about these beautiful creatures. Let’s look at the work of dog-lover Dr. Gregory Berns of Emory University.

Inside a dog’s brain

Dr. Berns has found a way to get inside the brains of awake and responsive dogs. To do this, he has used a medical imaging technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).

You might have heard of doctors using MRIs to to diagnose people with different conditions. For example, when my sister had a painful ankle, she had an MRI to check if she had a broken bone. This technique has been used on humans since the 1980s. But using it in animal research is newer. That’s partly because it is difficult for animals to stay still inside the machine. For MRI to work, the subject must stay still.

Dr. Berns has found one solution to this problem. He had the dogs sit on their stomachs with their head in a head coil. This way, awake and untethered dogs could be put in an MRI scanner, and researchers could gather data.

Dr. Berns ran his study on two dogs. With the dogs sitting still, the research team tested what part of the brain was activated when the dog thought it would get a reward. When a brain region is activated, there is an increase of oxygen-rich blood flowing to that region. This can be detected by the MRI machine.

In this experiment, a human would do two different hand gestures. One hand gesture made it look like the dog would get a reward. The other did not. The MRIs showed that when each dog saw the “reward” hand gestures, a region of the brain called the right caudate was activated. When they were shown the “no-reward” hand gestures, this region was not activated.

Did you know? Studies have shown that humans and animals use their caudates when deciding what they should do to achieve a goal.

You may have noticed that this study looked at only 2 dogs. So far, most canine fMRI studies have no more than 13 animals. Again, that’s partly because even the best-trained animals can move their heads during fMRI scans. Even tiny head movements can really lower the quality of the images. This becomes a problem when researchers are investigating the smaller areas of the brain. Also, head coils used in experiments like these are actually designed for humans. It can be tricky to fit them onto canine heads. Can you imagine trying to fit your bicycle helmet onto your dog’s head?

As I was researching this topic, I got a visit. My canine nephew, George Washington (yes, we take christening of our canines very seriously indeed!) decided to sit on my laptop's keyboard. The laptop promptly shut down. Maybe this was George's way of reminding me that sometimes, the best way of understanding a dog is simply to enjoy your time with one!

Learn more!

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Magnetic Resonance Imaging (2015)

Let’s Talk Science

Gregory Berns Knows What Your Dog Is Thinking (It’s Sweet) (2017)

C.Dreifus, New York Times

Functional MRI in awake, unrestrained dogs (2012)

G.S. Berns, A.M Brooks & M. Spivak, PlOS One, 86.

Link to abstract. Registration or subscription required to view full text.

What is fMRI?

UC San Diego, School of Medicine

Namrata Joshi

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