Sunday, October 13, 2013

How Dogs Think - New Science Looks Inside The Canine Mind with MRI Imaging

Updated 10-10-13
Wow. You've got to see this video
Wondering what your dog thinks? Neurocientists are on the right track to figuring it out.

In 2012, A couple of smart guys, Gregory Berns and Andrew Brooks of Emory University, watching a military dog assist Navy Seals as they overran the Osama Bin Laden compound, got a brilliant idea.  If you can teach dogs to jump out of helicopters, surely dogs could be trained to enjoy themselves inside an fMRI machine while scientists calculate what the dogs are thinking by scanning their brains.

The researchers, who are dog-lovers, explained, "We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog's perspective.  From the outset, we wanted to ensure the safety and comfort of the dogs.  We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly." So they recruited a professional dog trainer, Mark Spivak, and two companion dogs, a Feist Terrier named Callie and a Border Collie named McKenzie.  The team said that both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their brain activity.

In this photo Callie wears ear protection as she 
prepares to enter the scanner.  The research team 
includes, from left, Andrew Brooks, Gregory Berns and Mark Spivak.  
(Credit: Photo by Bryan Meltz)

This is what the researchers wrote in the journal article that was published in PLOS in 2012:  "Because of dogs’ prolonged evolution with humans, many of the canine cognitive skills are thought to represent a selection of traits that make dogs particularly sensitive to human cues. But how does the dog mind actually work? To develop a methodology to answer this question, we trained two dogs to remain motionless for the duration required to collect quality fMRI images by using positive reinforcement without sedation or physical restraints. The task was designed to determine which brain circuits differentially respond to human hand signals denoting the presence or absence of a food reward."

To find out what they've discovered in the last 18 months, read this article in the October 5, 2013 issue of the New York Times.
Do dogs feel guilt?

You can read a brief summary of the science here:  What is Your Dog Thinking? Brain Scans Unleash Canine Secrets.

Or read the entire scholarly article here: Berns, Gregory, Brooks, Andrew and Spivak, Mark, Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs (April 27, 2012). 

Or read Professor Gregory Berns' new book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neruoscientscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.

Canine illustrator Robert Dickey assigned thoughts and feeling to his Boston Terrier based on the dog's expressions. Here he illustrates contentment, sympathy and misery. 
(Dogs from Life, Page & Co., 1920)


  1. Definitely an interesting study, but I think the reason that dogs are man's best friend is the fact that we don't know what they are thinking, lol. Can you just imagine what they might say to their strange owners;)


  2. That's all well and good, but it's a lot easier just to ask dogs how they think. I did, and this is what my dog said:

  3. That's exactly what my dog said, too. Seems like a waste of time, but as your dog said, people don't listen because they're always making so much noise.

  4. Wonderful video and article!! I know my dogs are definitely people......they are quite bossy little ladies....they have me trained very well LOL!!!!!