If you’ve ever wondered what your dog thinks of you, a new study may just give the answers. Researchers at Emory University developed a new methodology that lets them scan the brains of alert dogs and figure out what really goes on up there.
They use the same functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that people sometimes go through, but they take this a step further by using different stimuli (hand signals, food, can openers, etc.) to try to find out what means what on the charts.
Results from the first experiment are being published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE), which shows how a dog’s brain reacts to hand signals from their owners.
“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog,” said Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project, in a press release.
“As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective,” Berns said.
Two dogs were used in the first part of the project—a two-year-old squirrel-hunting dog (squirrel!), and a three-year-old Border Collie. The first was adopted from a shelter at nine months, and the Collie was well-trained from the start.
The team of researchers isn’t all science folk either. They also have a professional dog trainer. Notably, they spent several months training the dogs to sit still after walking into the fMRI scanner. They also had to train them to wear earmuffs so the sound of the machine wouldn’t bother them.
“We know the dogs are happy by their body language,” says Mark Spivak, the professional trainer involved in the project, noting that the Collie “enters the scanner on her own, without a command, sometimes when it’s not her turn.”
The ultimate goal is to find out what triggers reactions in each part of the dogs’ brains. “Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?” states a press release.
The studies are still early on, so nothing groundbreaking has been found yet. After showing the dog different hand signals, which trainers often use to teach dogs tricks and then follow up with a treat, they found “these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system,” as stated by Berns.
Berns decided to take on the project after hearing of a dog on the team of U.S. Navy S.E.A.L.s that took down Osama bin Laden. “I was amazed when I saw the pictures of what military dogs can do,” Berns said. “I realized that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, we could certainly train them to go into an fMRI to see what they’re thinking.”
The study is explained a bit more in the video below: