Scientists use MRI to see what Fido is thinking

Scientists use MRI to see what Fido is thinking May 15, 2012
What do you think Bandit is thinking right now?

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t look at my quirky Border collie, Bandit, and say, “I wish I knew what you were thinking right now.” My guess is that, if you have dogs, you often think the same thing.

Well, researchers at Emory University have found a way to study what’s going on in Fido’s brain with what is likely the first functional MRI performed on a dog.

In this kind of brain scan, dogs were studied while they were awake and unrestrained – no sedation, no leashes. Just a dog in her normal dog-like alert state with some humans talking to dogs the way we talk to dogs.

You know there were hot dogs involved.

Over the course of several months, Gregory Berns and Andrew Brooks, of the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, Comprehensive Pet Therapy, and their team trained two dogs – Callie, a 2-year-old feist (Southern squirrel-hunting dog) and McKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie – to be able to calmly enter an MRI machine, wearing headphones to drown out the machine noise, and lie still for the brain scan.

Once the dog was in the machine, researchers then showed the dog two hand signals she had been trained to understand: one meant a hot dog was coming, the other meant no hot dog. Researchers where then able to look at the dog’s brain while she was in the machine, allowing them to see what parts of the brain lit up right when she saw the hand signal.

What they found was that when the dog saw the signal that indicated a hot dog was on the way, the area of the brain called the caudate region showed activity; this is a region associated with rewards in humans. When the “no hot dog” signal was given, there was no activity in that area.

It sounds a bit simple; my Bandit, at least, knows when a hot dog is on the way and when I’m empty-handed. (He also knows, by the direction I look right after I stand up from my desk chair, if I’m going to the kitchen or headed out the front door, signaling the amount of barking required for the occasion. Can we study that next, please?)

But to be able to actually see the dog’s brain light up, in real time, when the signal was given? That was revolutionary, because it opens the door to further study of dog communication and the bond between humans and animals.

Imagine being able to really know what your dog is thinking when you walk in the front door after a long day at work. Is Fido feeling happy to see you because he loves you and missed you? Or is he just excited to have something new to play with other than the remote?

Do you really even want to know?

Some of what Berns said in the video above echoes much of the writing on dog behavior from the last decade. But that alone is vital, because it may confirm what many of us already know in our hearts: that positive training methods help increase the human/canine bond by using clear communication based on positive, relationship-building rewards rather than fear-based dominance.

Translation: your dog doesn’t need to be yanked or shocked to obey. He’s happy to do it for a treat.

I’m an animal behavior junkie, so this fascinates me. If you’re at all interested in learning more about dog evolution and behavior, here are a few of my favorite books (the list is endless, and I’d be happy to recommend more if you ask):

The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog by Patricia McConnell
Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin
Bones Would Rain From The Sky by Suzanne Clothier
Dogs by Ramond and Lorraine Coppinger

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