An Extraordinary Revelation: Decoding Dog Thoughts

How Dogs Love UsCan you imagine getting a dog – even a service dog – to go into the loud, dark tunnel of an MRI  (magnetic resonance imaging) and lie there quietly, without moving, while the machine scans the dog’s brain? I never imagined it could be done or, more accurately, why someone would want to do that – unless, of course, it was to determine some brain malfunction.

But a professor at Emory University, Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, had a revelation. After years of studying how the human reward system works, he wondered how it worked in dogs. The concept dawned on him after one of his beloved dogs died.

Even after a partnership of 15 years, he realized he had never really known what his dog was thinking or feeling.

Like all of us with dogs, Professor Berns assumed he understood his dog’s emotional responses, but wondered if there wasn’t some way to prove them. Hence the birth of what he called the “Dog Project.” He would try to invent a means to map the brain’s pleasure center (caudate) while the dog responded to various cues, such as  the presence of food or one of the animal’s human family. If he could figure this out, it would be the first time we could actually view how and what the dog was actually thinking from the dog’s perspective instead of the human’s.

Do dogs reciprocate ouDog entering MRIr feelings for them? Do they truly love us or do they consider us mere food dispensers? These were the questions he posed. Perhaps MRI imaging could provide the proof he sought. But how to train a dog to voluntarily jump into an MRI and stay still, without any sedation or restraints, long enough to take images of the dog’s brain while various cues were given. Even for humans, the MRI feels claustrophobic and loud. Furthermore, one has to lie perfectly still during the imaging. Both aspects present a problem for dogs with their ultra-sensitive hearing and tendency to wiggle about.

By now, Dr. Berns had another dog, “Callie,” whom he describes as “a long, skinny thing with sticks for leg” and a head shaped like “an anvil.” His behavioral description of Callie is somewhat off-putting. This was a dog who “wasn’t cuddly” and “didn’t like to sit in laps.” She was, for all intents and purposes, a dog as different from his previous one as one could imagine. While his former dog loved to snuggle into his armpit, Callie “would assume a position at the foot of the bed” and no amount of cajoling could convince her to cuddle.

Yet slowly and steadily, Callie learns, by degrees (and lots and lots of hotdogs), to hop into the MRI, wear sound-blocking earmuffs, and lie perfectly still. Part of the charm of this book is Berns’ ability to explain step-by-step this training and its purpose – without sounding like a mad scientist nor someone going for the science prize in abstruse writing. He even brings in humorous anecdotes: so the dog could get used to it, he built an MRI simulator from Home Depot supplies which he installed at home under the apprehensive gaze of his wife who looked at this “monstrosity in her living room, a space formerly occupied by an elegant sofa set and coffee table.”

With all the training this extraordinary task necessitated, slowly but surely, his own relationship with Callie changes into one of mutual attachment. Eventually, Callie curls up in bed and cuddles with the doctor.

But, back to the experiment: An MRI lines up protons in the brain so that when hit by radio waves, they can be captured as an image. Dr. Berns saw that the caudate (the part of the brain in both dogs and humans that is the center of the reward system) “lights up” when the dog was given a hand signal indicating a reward was forthcoming (a piece of hot dog), but stayed “dormant” when a second hand signal indicated that no reward was in the offing.

The MRI scans also showed that the caudate lights up when the dog sniffed the odor of someone in his/her human family but not when sniffing the odor of a stranger. This appears to confirm that the presence of a familiar person ignited feelings of “reward.” This may not, perhaps, be proof of love as we know it, but it is certainly evidence of a very real connection.

dog with leather leash

What am I thinking? Oh, come on — you can do this! You’re smart. Figure it out. Hey, I’m talking to you!

From these experiments, Dr. Berns penned the book: How Dogs Love Us. A major portion of the book explains how Dr. Berns taught the dog to go into the MRI machine (remember – the dog does this voluntarily!) and in describing the process, the reader will learn much about brain imaging but also the scientific process as well as some of the political and social difficulties that surround and, too often, impede it. It’s a fascinating window into the world of the scientific experiment, from a real-world perspective. Berns accomplishes this with explanations that are both interesting and readily understandable to the nonscientist.

But there is another part of the book readers will love and relate to even more: the story of his relationship with Callie. In Dr. Berns’ quest to demonstrate how dogs think, his description of Callie and the mutually deepening bond that develops throughout the training process, Callie, his 19-pound, indifferent dog, wary of close contact, in the end, chooses to snuggle and cuddle.

One word of warning. Berns doesn’t write only about Callie. The man is a true dog-lover and he writes of other dogs. Whenever we tell the life story of any loved dogs, there are deaths and it always hurts. Knowing their shorter trajectory in life is one of the hardest facets of having a dog.  Yet, who among us would trade in their dog because of that?

Finally, while not intentional in this scientist’s effort to map a dog’s brain, the book yields another aspect to which every dog lover can relate: It is not just Callie’s response to cues that enamor and enlighten us, but what happens to Dr. Berns as his bond with this dog develops. It is not just how dogs love us, but how we love dogs.

Ah. . . but we knew that already.


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13 Responses to An Extraordinary Revelation: Decoding Dog Thoughts

  1. Edie January 8, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    Dogs have always had a special place in my heart. I can not and do not want to ever return home and not have a wagging tail greet
    me with love. For me, the eyes of the dog do the talking to me. I see compassion, interest, concern, apprehension, and most of all a bond of love. I don’t need a test to feel it. Just a smile and kids from my dog.

    • Ann Barbas May 8, 2014 at 2:50 pm #

      Thank you for the review, many of which I have read previously. Like reading a good book over and over.

  2. Mary E. Trimble January 8, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    Good post, Patricia. I often see love in my chocolate lab’s eyes. Not always though.

  3. Norman W Wilson, PhD January 8, 2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Good article, doc. But after all the training and rewarding did the MRI reveal anything of importance? After all, the bottom line is, we know our animal friends love us as we love them. You said it: “Ah, but we knew that already.”

  4. Cliff Mueller January 8, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

    I don’t need an MRI to decode our foster chihuahua, Oliver’s thoughts. “When are you feeding me next? When are you feeding me next? When are you feeding me next?” That’s about it.

  5. Ann Barbas January 8, 2014 at 4:26 pm #

    How very interesting. I no longer have a dog however, I enjoy learning all about these loving animals. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  6. Dirk Peterson January 8, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    Very good article Patricia. I would like to put our Sheltie through a MRI to figure out her different mood swings toward me. Hope you are doing well and have a good 2014.

  7. Kathleen Kaska January 8, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    This was one of your best posts, Patricia. So informative. Thanks for sharing. I’ll share it, too.

  8. Bill Thorn January 9, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Fascinating article Patricia. It’s your best one yet in my opinion. Animals in general have a lot more feelings and “smarts” than we humans attribute to them even though they don’t speak like we do and have no thumbs!!


  9. Marie Grime January 9, 2014 at 6:27 pm #

    Great review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the warning about the deaths. I have heard of dogs who weren’t lovable becoming that way to someone over time, but never experienced it with a dog.

    However it did happen in our home with a cat.

    Samantha had been an outdoor cat all her life. She was born on a snowbird neighbor’s porch while he was away 6 months. She left her siblings and came to our door at about 6 – 8 months old, walked in, and said as cats will, “Hi, I live here now. Please feed me.”

    Samantha was comfortable in the house; she came in daily to eat and sometimes just to say hello and nap on a lap, but basically remained an outdoor cat and not a very affectionate one.

    For 9 years, her bathroom was the Great Outdoors. Then one morning, a neighbor came to us with a complaint. His meticulously-kept yard had become Samantha’s favorite litter box, and it wasn’t fair to him that she polluted it. So, with little hope of it working, we bought a litter box and related products, brought Samantha indoors, and told her she was now a house cat.

    She took to the litter box within the day. Then like Callie, Samantha began to like this pampered house cat life, especially the human affection that came with it, and more and more she reciprocated with love. I am glad we brought her in because she lived another 10 years, so she had spent more than half her life being loved more, and being made more comfortable than any outdoor cat ever would be, even one given indoor visitation privileges like she had enjoyed.

    We do not have a cat now, haven’t had a cat since Samantha passed but, if we acquire another cat, he or she will not be an outdoor one.

  10. Hemlata Vasavada January 12, 2014 at 7:59 am #

    An informative book review, which shows what dogs do for humans and what humans in return to for their best friends.

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