Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Brain scans may soon tell us what our dogs are thinking

See Hope's Story Below
What does your dog see when he gazes at you adoringly? A best friend? A pack leader? A can opener? While many of us draw countless inferences regarding what our dog may be thinking about us, no one has actually captured images of the canine thought process - until now.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta have developed a new methodology for scanning the brains of alert dogs. The Public Library of Science will soon publish their results, which will show how the brains of dogs reacted to hand signals given by their owners.

The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking the secrets of the human brain.

"It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog," said Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomist and director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy, and lead researcher of the dog project.

It is hoped this research will open new understanding into canine cognition and inter-species communication. The research is innovative in that it is exploring the dog-human relationship from the dog's perspective.

Two dogs are involved in the project. Callie is a 2-year-old Feist, which is a squirrel-hunting dog developed from crossbreeding various hunting breeds in the rural southern United States. Berns adopted Callie when she was 9 months old from an animal shelter.

McKenzie is a 3-year-old border collie, who was already well trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate.

Both dogs were trained to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.

The researchers are attempting to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to answer questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?

The dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dogs would receive a treat; another meant they would not. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for a treat, but there was no such activity for the no-treat signal.

These findings support the Yavapai Humane Society's philosophy that dogs respond better to positive stimuli (rewards) than they do to negative (punishment).

"These results indicate dogs pay very close attention to human signals. And these signals may have a direct line to the dog's reward system," Berns says.

Dog lovers have always been aware that there is something special about our bond with dogs. No other animal loves us in quite the same way. Over thousands of years, a collective domestication has occurred in which humans formed an intense bond with dogs - and the admiration is almost always reciprocal. It is a love that only dogs and humans possess; begging the question - was the human capacity for love, sympathy, empathy, and compassion for nature and other species sparked by this unique bond?

Beginning Monday, June 4, the Yavapai Humane Society is launching a new brain-stimulating Enrichment Program. This program is designed to help improve the lives of the animals in our care. Effective June 4 YHS will open at 11 a.m., allowing us to dedicate a full hour (10-11 a.m.) each day to enrichment training and activities intended to help make our animals happier and more adoptable.

If you would like to help support YHS's many life-saving programs, please send a donation to 1625 Sundog Ranch Road, Prescott AZ 86301, or make a donation online at

The dog in the picture above is Hope - a true pit bull ambassador.  Hope was recently rescued from Best Friend's LA who had sent her to a high kill shelter.  Hope represents everything that is good about the breed. She is an affectionate and loyal 9-month-old puppy wanting only to please. She is spayed, vaccinated and microchipped and ready to be adopted at the Yavapa Humane Society today.

Ed Boks is the executive director of the Yavapai Humane Society. He can be reached at or by calling 445-2666, ext. 21.