Using Science to Prove our Best Friends Love Us

If you have seen our previous series of posts about our Canine Championship, you know that we love dogs here on the STEM-Works team. Based on the fact that this championship placed our dogs in a series of head-to-head competitions to battle for the title of “Smartest Dog”, you can also guess that we take pride in working with our dogs to bring out their smarts. While we’re proud of our dogs and their ability to conquer tricks and impress at parties, we are all pretty confident when we say that there is about a zippy chance that any of our pooches would have the mental wherewithal and calmness to lie completely still in an MRI for an extended period of time (we’ll be honest – we’ve all had to have MRIs and didn’t particularly enjoy it ourselves).

This is more like our dogs’ smarts.

Although the Canine Championship was a fun and scientific method-based competition to determine which of our dogs was smartest, it was wrought with challenges and imperfections related to the ways each of the dogs had been trained and how each of us as owners facilitated the competition with our pooches. So how can we really learn about what’s going on inside our best friends’ head?

Is she thinking: "I love you so much" or "Food, food, food, food, food..."

Is she thinking: “I love you so much” or “Food, food, food, food, food…”

Well, the New York Times recently published an interesting article titled “Dogs Are People, Too”  which piqued our interest and gives a glimmer of hope for answering these types of questions.  A neuroscientist from Emory University has been investigating how dogs’ brains work in order to gain insight into animal emotions, sentience, and even thoughts (full scientific paper can be found here). As you might suspect, when animals are anesthetized, it isn’t possible to get a clear picture of brain functions or how the animal responds to particular stimuli. This methodological hurdle was overcome by Dr. Gregory Berns and an animal trainer colleague, by working with dogs to train them to enter an MRI and lie still for up to 30 seconds while a scan is completed. The dogs are even provided with a custom headrest and earmuffs.

Now for the obligatory “awwwww”

Although we were intrigued by the methodology of this study, the findings are even more exciting! What Dr. Berns discovered after doing a series of functional MRI scans (or fMRIs) on two dogs (and he is continuing his research with even more dogs now), is that dogs have a neurological response for enjoyment or positive association similar to humans. In particular, the part of a human and dog’s brain that shows activity related to enjoyment was activated when the dogs were presented with hand signals that indicated food, scents of familiar humans, and even other animals that live in the same house as the dog. Here’s a great video where Dr. Berns explains it himself:

Although this research is still in its early stages, we’re excited to see signs that our dogs love us for more than just the food we provide them. We won’t go so far as to say that dogs are people, but it’s pretty cool to get scientific evidence that demonstrates affection from our best friends.

So, as this research progresses, tell us, what would you be interested in learning about dog’s thoughts?

Also, just for fun, what do you think:

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