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:

Canine Championship

We on the STEM team have a confession to make… we are total dog nuts. Just give us an excuse and we’re happy to regale you with tales of our canine’s crazy antics and fantastic feats. So when someone mentioned dedicating a blog post or two to our dogs, who were we to argue? However, we are also science-oriented people, and it wouldn’t do for us to just gratuitously dote on our pets. So we thought we would take a second to dig into the science behind our dogs’ intelligence and apply what we learn through a doggie showdown to crown one of our pooches smartest of them all!

It may seem easy to speculate about the intelligence level of our dogs by assessing how good they are at tricks and how well they listen to their owners. In reality, these types of assessments only get at part of the picture. According to Stanley Coren, author of the book The Intelligence of Dogs, working/obedience intelligence is only one of three types of dog intelligence. The other two types of intelligence are adaptive intelligence, which marks a dog’s problem-solving abilities, and instinctive intelligence, which marks how sharp their instincts are.  So just because your dog may not do what you say, that does not make him/her a dumb dog!

So how do we get a better idea of the overall intelligence levels of our dogs? Well, it turns out we weren’t the only ones to ask this question. PBS Kids came up with a wonderful collection of tests to test dogs’ problem-solving skills. So we thought we would follow suit and put our dogs up to the test!

Here’s the lineup:


DollyAge: 7 months
Gender: Female
Breed: Shih-tzu
Favorite Toy: Rawhide bones
Little Known Fact: The shih-tzu is an ancient breed from China and played a part in many royal families.
Trick Repertoire: When she has her stuffed animal toys she will shake them so hard that they flip up in the air and she will jump and catch it.
Owner: Candice

LENNU (pronounced Len-oo)

LennuAge: 5 years
Gender: Male
Breed: Australian Shepherd
Favorite Toy: FRISBEE!!!
Little Known Fact: Lennu disappeared last year and found his way back home after 4 days.
Trick Repertoire: Sit, Stay, Down, Rollover, High-five, Figure 8 (through the owners’ legs), Back up, Speak, Leave it, Drop it
Owner: Danielle


MillieAge: 2.5 years (estimated)
Gender: Female
Breed: American Pit Bull Terrier
Favorite Toy: Anything Roxy is playing with
Little Known Fact: She was rescued off the streets and was in pretty bad shape, but after being nursed back to health she’s turned into the perfect family dog who lives for giving anyone and everyone lots of kisses!
Trick Repertoire: Sit, Stay, Down, Dance, Leave It, Wait, Back
Owner: Lindsey


Roxy_2 (3)Age: 2.5 years
Gender: Female
Breed: American Staffordshire Terrier Mix
Favorite Toy: Squeaky Ball
Little Known Fact: It takes Roxy less than 30 minutes to annihilate “indestructible” toys but she loves playing with inflated balloons so much that she has learned how to be gentle with them so she can play with them for hours.
Trick Repertoire: Sit, Stay, Down, Sit Pretty, Dance, Sing, Leave It, Wait, Back
Owner: Lindsey


SammyAge: 3 years (estimated)
Gender: Male
Breed: Black Lab/Border Collie Mix
Favorite Toy: Lennu
Little Known Fact: Sammy is in an on-again-off-again relationship with his owner’s sister’s Yellow Lab/Border Collie Mix named Abby
Trick Repertoire: Sit, Stay, Down, High-five, Rollover, Drop it
Owner: Danielle


FitzAge: 3 years
Gender: Male
Breed: Shih-tzu
Favorite Toy: ALL TOYS, including his bed (he will herd all of the toys around the house into his bed then carry the bed by mouth to another room)
Little Known Fact: The Shih-tzu breed wasn’t brought to the United States until WWII.
Trick Repertoire: Fitz loves to dance on his hind legs & he can talk and say “I wuv you Candice.”
Owner: Candice

So what do you think? Who will come out on top?

Weigh in with your prediction of the smartest dog, and tell us why you made your choice!