You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Wed, May 9, 2012 : 7:40 a.m.

Researchers get a glimpse into the canine brain in hopes to better understand dogs, humans

By Lorrie Shaw


Do you know how this dog is feeling?

flickr photo by normanack

In working with dogs everyday, a lot of my time is spent trying to figure out what these creatures are thinking, what will make them happy or what will motivate them. I think that a lot of you who share time with pets can relate.

Most of the time, it doesn’t seem too hard; I can pick up on body language and, after getting to know my canine clients over the course of days, I feel that I can understand what they want or need.

Communication is a two-way street, as they say and since dogs can’t talk, we can only do our best to judge their reactions and adjust accordingly. But, I feel like I might be off of the mark at times because of the language barrier.

For that reason, I’ll admit that I work that much harder at ‘listening’ and paying attention to their behavior so that I get things right.

It’s no secret that dogs are intelligent and supple. In fact, in my estimation, they have had to adapt faster than any other species on the planet and in a very short amount of time and for good reason: Us. Sadly, we haven’t always done the best job of being willing to adapt in kind.

We’ve involved dogs in our daily life from the start. Early on, humans used to them to help hunt for food, to act as guards and to farm. As our civilization progressed, they demonstrated their ability to do things that we couldn’t possibly accomplish. Their use in the military and law enforcement is a great representation of this.

A recent article in LiveScience piqued my interest because of my desire to better understand canines.

Animal cognition has in recent years become a topic that scientists want to tap into and for good reason: they want to understand them better — and then there’s the craving to have an enhanced comprehension of the human mind.

In the latter case, monkeys have often been used as a model, but in doing so it can create problems. For one thing, being in a lab surrounded by humans is an environment that is not natural — and can influence how a monkey thinks. Dogs however, are used to being around us and adapt more easily.

Gregory Berns, neuroscientist and director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy and members of the research team that conducted a study, Andrew Brooks and Mark Spivak enlisted the help of Berns’ dog, Callie, a 2-year-old feist, and McKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie.

This study was different than others conducted on animal cognition; previously, observing the behavior of many dogs has been the mode of learning. The research team had a better idea: Use a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Over the course of a few months, the team trained the dogs to stay still inside the machine, fully awake, while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs.

For the experiment, the pooches were trained to respond to hand signals that would corresponding with “treat” and "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 respond when the dogs saw the “no-treat” signal was given.

"These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals," Berns said.

"And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system."

Last week, I wrote about the efficacy in using positive reinforcement methods (that includes reward-based training), but how easily a dog’s choices can be swayed by human intervention, deliberately or not so.

The team’s discovery offers hope in the quest to better understand the connection that dogs and humans have, too.

"The dog's brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It’s possible that dogs have even affected human evolution," offered Berns.

So, how will this new frontier change the way that we understand or even change canine behavior? Only Time will tell.

Check out this video that provides more information about how the study came about and how it was done.

Read the study, "Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs", by clicking here.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly and subscribe to's email newsletters.


Mary Bilyeu

Wed, May 9, 2012 : 3:29 p.m.

Animals are so much smarter, and more complex, than we realize or give them credit for ....