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: The Gripping Conclusion

At long last, the results of our Canine Championship are in. But before we dive right in to crowning one of our canines “Professor Pooch,” we feel that we would be remiss if we didn’t touch on a few scientific concepts first.

If you had a chance to watch the video showing the gamut of tests that the dogs would be put through, you’ll notice that the conditions of the activities were the same for each dog. Each dog was subject to the same blanket, the same cup, the same board, and the same treats. In other words, the conditions were standardized for each experiment and participant.

Because our canines were all being tested in different parts of the country and under different conditions, we had to come up with our own way to make sure that the experiments had some level of standardization. To this end, we stipulated the following conditions for these activities:

Blanket over Head: All dogs were covered head-to-toe with a regular sized bath towel. The towels must have completely covered their heads and as much of their bodies as possible.

Cup over Treat:  All treats were completely covered with a regular sized plastic cup.

Blanket over Treat: The same towel was used as in the first activity and the treat was placed under the middle of the towel.

Board over Treat: The boards used were no more than 2 inches off the ground.

So, without further ado, here are the results we have for the Canine Championship:

Blanket over Head:

Lennu: 4.66 seconds

Millie: 4.8 seconds

Roxy: 9.6 seconds

Sammy: .76 seconds




Cup over Treat:

Lennu: 11.66 seconds

Millie: 2.4 seconds

Roxy: 7.6 seconds

Sammy: 7.57 seconds




Blanket over Treat:

Lennu: 30.67 seconds

Millie: 29.5 seconds

Roxy: 12.9 seconds

Sammy: 7.75 seconds

We know this doesn't relate to this activity, but ain't he cute?

We know this doesn’t relate to this activity, but ain’t he cute?


Board over Treat:

Lennu: 1 minute, 38 seconds

Millie: 3 seconds

Roxy: 4.2 seconds

Sammy:  49 seconds

Total Time:

1st – Roxy 34.3 seconds

2nd – Millie: 39.7 seconds

3rd – Sammy: 65.1 seconds

4th – Lennu: 155 seconds

Way to go Roxy! While she may not have won any individual event, Roxy’s performance earned her the crown of Professor Pooch!Roxy Cap & Gown

Ok, so before we let Danielle make too many excuses for “Last Place Lennu,” we must remark that these activities, while fun and entertaining, only seem to touch on a certain type of canine intelligence. If you look back to the three types of intelligence listed in our introductory Canine Championship post, these activities really seem to target the canine’s adaptive intelligence. Due to the fact that some breeds, particularly working breeds, have heightened amounts of working/obedience intelligence, this default mindset may have hindered our Aussie’s performance in this competition. Danielle did note that Lennu kept looking to her to make sure his actions were ok, and when he tried the activities a second time, he did them at lightning speed. On the other end of the spectrum, Roxy is great at following Lindsey’s commands but when she releases her by saying “Okay,” Roxy is very independent and doesn’t let anything stand in the way of what she wants (in this case, a treat!)

Ok, so Roxy may have been crowned Professor Pooch for the moment, but we want to hear from you! Write to us with the results of your dog so we can add them to the results board. Be sure to provide us with information about your dog’s breed, age, gender, a little known fact about them, and their trick repertoire, along with their results! And make sure you use the standardizations that we stipulated for our mutts.

Ready… Go!