September 13, 2017

Yes, your dog loves you. This neuroscientist can prove it.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on August 15, 2018.

    In an interview with the New York Times' Claudia Dreifus, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who conducts MRI research into dogs, shares some good news for dog lovers everywhere: "Your dog may really love you for you—not for your food."

    Everything you need to know about the neurosciences market in 2018

    Where the project began

    According to Berns, his canine studies have an unlikely origin: It all started, he said, "with the mission that killed [Osama] bin Laden." While watching the news coverage, Berns noticed there was a dog onboard the helicopter with the Navy SEALs. "Helicopters are incredibly noisy. Dogs have extremely sensitive hearing," Bern said. "I thought, 'Gee, if the military can train dogs to get into noisy helicopters, it might be possible to get them into noisy MRIs.'"

    The goal for Berns, a vegetarian and dog lover, was to learn what dogs think and feel. "As a neuroscientist, I'd seen how MRI studies helped us understand which parts of the human brain were involved in emotional processes. Perhaps MRI testing could teach us similar things about dogs."

    Training the dogs

    To get things started, Berns built an MRI simulator in his basement and tested it on Callie, his family terrier. He worked with a dog trainer on the set of commands that could coax a dog into an MRI.

    After Callie successfully learned the tasks, Berns and the trainer expanded their sample size by asking local dog owners for study volunteers. According to Berns, they've trained and scanned roughly 90 dogs since 2012. "As a matter of principle," the team never restrains or drugs the dogs, Berns said.

    The testing

    In large part, the researchers performed on the dogs "tests analogous to neuroscience tests already done on people," Berns said. For example, the researchers tested dogs on a "go, no-go test" that's similar to the marshmallow test used to measure the ability to delay gratification.

    "In the scanner, we could see that when we went no-go, a part of the prefrontal lobe became active," Berns explained. "Dogs who had more activity there did better. It is the same for humans in the marshmallow test. I don't believe this has been seen before in non-primates."

    In another experiment, the researchers tested how dogs process varying kinds of rewards—from food to human praise. For the experiment, researchers gave the dogs hot dogs in some instances and praise in others. According to Berns, a look at the rewards center of the dogs' brains showed "the vast number of dogs responded to praise and food equally." And about 20 percent reacted more strongly to praise than food, Bern added. "From that, we conclude that the vast majority of dogs love us at least as much as food."

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    The researchers also learned that dogs have dedicated parts of the brain for processing faces, Berns said. "This means that dogs aren't just learning from being around us that human faces are important—they are born to look at faces. This wasn't known before."

    Practical applications

    When it comes to practical applications, Berns said it could "be useful for training service dogs." Training the dogs can cost tens of thousands of dollars, Berns explained. While puppies are bred for the task, a large number "turn out to be inappropriate," according to Berns. To address the issue, the researchers worked with Canine Companions for Independence to identify which puppies would mostly likely succeed.  

    In addition, Berns said the research might help shelter dogs with aggression problems, adding that knowledge about what's happening in their brains might help with alternatives to euthanizing them.

    Berns' research is published in a new book, "What It's Like to Be a Dog" (Dreifus, New York Times, 9/8).

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