Science-- there's something for everyone

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What is your dog thinking?

Okay, we can’t really answer that question.  But thanks to the efforts of Gregory Berns and Andrew Brooks of Emory University and Mark Spivak of Comprehensive Pet Therapy, we may be closer than ever to understanding our best friends. They trained two dogs to jump into a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machine and stay.

Dogs can be taught to do an amazing number of tasks, and among them apparently, is to lie still with their heads on an fMRI chin rest. Once in position, the dogs were shown one of two hand signals, one indicating a hot dog treat and the other no treat. Presumably, in dog world, these options represent extremes in happiness. And in fact, when the dogs saw the hot dog sign, their brain scans showed activation of the part of the brain that, in humans, is associated with rewards.

This experiment was designed as a proof of concept, namely, that you could study what’s going on in a dog’s mind in real time. Now that we know it can be done, more specific tests can be designed. The authors are quick to point out that their test subjects entered the fMRI apparatus voluntarily and were not restrained in any way. This took about two months of positive reinforcement training, which included getting the dogs to wear protective ear muffs.

Gregory Berns explains: