A Dog’s Mind

Fas­ci­nat­ing new re­search into how dogs think and the emotions they ex­pe­ri­ence is help­ing to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing of our dogs, but there’s still much left to learn


Fas­ci­nat­ing new re­search into how dogs think and the emotions they ex­pe­ri­ence is help­ing to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing of our dogs.

We pam­per and spoil them, let them sleep in our beds, call them our “fur ba­bies,” dress them up on Hal­loween, fill their stock­ings at Christ­mas, and gen­er­ally treat them like hu­man mem­bers of our fam­i­lies—of­ten with­out stop­ping to con­sider what they think of it all. Now, sci­en­tific re­search is get­ting closer to de­ter­min­ing what ac­tu­ally goes on in our dogs’ minds—with some sur­pris­ing re­sults.

My in­ter­view with Gre­gory Berns, a highly re­garded neu­ro­sci­en­tist who, in the past five or so years has turned his at­ten­tion from the hu­man brain to the ca­nine mind, could not be tak­ing place at a more fate­ful time.

At the start of my call with Greg, who is the di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Neu­ropol­icy and Fa­cil­ity for Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search in Neu­ro­science at Emory Uni­ver­sity in At­lanta, Ge­or­gia, as well as the co-founder of Dog Star Tech­nolo­gies, a com­pany that uses neu­ro­science to en­hance the dog-hu­man part­ner­ship, I ex­plain that my fam­ily is fac­ing a rather se­ri­ous chal­lenge with one of our dogs.

Ever since res­cu­ing him—known bite his­tory and all—from a shel­ter five years ago, Max has acted very ag­gres­sively to­ward strangers, other dogs, cats, cars, bi­cy­cles, skate­boards, and pretty much any­thing that moves or that, we think, he per­ceives to pose some sort of threat. Lately, he has started to turn his (neg­a­tive) at­ten­tion to­ward our one-and-a-half-year-old daugh­ter, who wasn’t even a thought in our mind when we first adopted him. Af­ter nu­mer­ous at­tempts at train­ing, di­etary changes, and even med­i­ca­tion, we feel as though we’re run­ning out of op­tions—though I can’t shake the feel­ing that, if I had even an inkling of what Max thinks or feels or needs from me, I would be in a bet­ter po­si­tion to help him.

Greg has done and con­tin­ues to do a lot of work to bet­ter un­der­stand ca­nine thought and thought pro­cesses—his first dog-cen­tered book, How Dogs Love Us, pub­lished in 2013, quickly be­came a

Wall Street Jour­nal and New York Times best­seller; his se­cond book, What It's

Like to Be a Dog, is set to be re­leased this month and ex­pands on his re­search into whether dogs ex­pe­ri­ence emotions like peo­ple, ap­ply­ing his find­ings to other wild an­i­mals, in­clud­ing sea li­ons, dol­phins and the now-ex­tinct Tas­ma­nian tiger. Con­sid­er­ing this, I ask if he has any in­sights into the prob­lem of ag­gres­sion, and what may be go­ing on in an anx­ious or fear­ful dog’s mind.

“It’s a re­ally dif­fi­cult ques­tion, be­cause you can’t se­cond-guess these things in hind­sight,” he says, re­fer­ring to the fact that my daugh­ter’s safety, no mat­ter how much I love my dog, comes first. “I’m hope­ful but, ob­vi­ously, the chal­lenge with ag­gres­sion in par­tic­u­lar is that we will likely never be able to scan a dog in the midst of an ag­gres­sive episode.”

By “scan,” Greg is re­fer­ring to the use of brain-imag­ing tech­nolo­gies, namely mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI), to un­der­stand ca­nine mo­ti­va­tion and de­ci­sion-mak­ing. In fact, he and his team were the very first to train dogs to en­ter an MRI scan­ner com­pletely awake and

hold per­fectly still (plenty of hot dogs, he says, helped) so as to be able to ob­tain data that could help piece to­gether what they think and feel.

His find­ings, thus far, are noth­ing short of fas­ci­nat­ing. The in­for­ma­tion he and his team are col­lect­ing is re­veal­ing star­tling in­sights about how the brains of our ca­nine friends work.

When it comes to my ques­tion around ag­gres­sion, he says, “One of the things that I think is key … is how dogs re­act to changes in the en­vi­ron­ment. Some­thing has to pro­voke an act. A dog just doesn’t all of a sud­den de­cide, ‘Hey, I’m go­ing to bite some­one to­day.’”

There has to be, he con­tin­ues, a stim­u­lus—usu­ally some change in their en­vi­ron­ment. I’ve seen widely vary­ing abil­i­ties among dogs to han­dle changes in the en­vi­ron­ment or, as my busi­ness part­ner says, tran­si­tions, so I think there is hope in some of what we’re do­ing to un­der­stand how dogs han­dle change.”

He re­veals that his team has been do­ing some “early re­search into try­ing to un­der­stand the con­cept of jeal­ousy in dogs with the imag­ing, to see if we can study that in a mild form in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment in the scan­ner.” By show­er­ing a fake dog with af­fec­tion to try and in­duce the feel­ing of jeal­ousy in the real dog in the MRI ma­chine, Greg says he and his team are “tak­ing baby steps in that di­rec­tion.”

What he has dis­cov­ered thus far points to proof that dogs do, in their own way, love us.

“Love is ob­vi­ously a loaded word, it has many dif­fer­ent mean­ings,” says Greg. “But, if you take lan­guage out of the equa­tion, off the ta­ble, then I think what you’re left with when you look at their brains is that you see emo­tional sys­tems, re­ward sys­tems—lots of sys­tems of the brain that look es­sen­tially the same as ours.”

As he and his team con­tinue to study this “in ac­tion”—that is, with dogs in the scan­ner—what they’re see­ing time and time again is, when dogs are in cir­cum­stances anal­o­gous to sit­u­a­tions hu­mans might be in, the re­sult is sim­i­lar re­sponses in sim­i­lar parts of the brain.

“One ex­per­i­ment we did is some­thing called praise ver­sus food. We were in­ter­ested in how their brains pro­cessed the rel­a­tive value of food ver­sus sim­ply a so­cial re­ward like say­ing, ‘Good girl.’ And the an­swer is it looks very sim­i­lar to hu­man brains in a sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance—the ma­jor­ity of dogs showed re­sponses that equaled or ex­ceeded that of food, sug­gest­ing that so­cial re­wards are just as plea­sur­able to them as food—sug­gest­ing that they have sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ences as we do. They can’t la­bel it, they can’t put words on it, but ev­ery­thing that we’re see­ing sug­gests that they have the ca­pac­ity to feel things in ways like we do, mi­nus the words to la­bel them.”

There is, how­ever, a caveat to this no­tion. Says Greg, “The other in­ter­est­ing things about dogs is that, like hu­mans, they’re also very dif­fer­ent from each other. Ev­ery­thing that we’re see­ing shows that they have a range of re­sponses—the same as when we do the hu­man ver­sion of the ex­per­i­ment, we see a range of hu­man re­sponses.”

This point, he em­pha­sizes, is im­por­tant, be­cause when we talk about what it’s like to be a dog, that over­sim­pli­fies the ques­tion, which should re­ally be, what is it like to be this dog, or that dog?

“Just like some peo­ple are warm and fuzzy and lov­ing and some are not, we

see the same thing in dogs and it par­al­lels ac­tiv­ity in their brains,” he ex­plains.

When it comes to ma­jor dif­fer­ences be­tween us—our brains—and our dogs, Greg once again points to lan­guage.

“You ob­vi­ously don’t need an MRI to know dogs can’t speak. The ques­tion though, and this is where imag­ing is be­gin­ning to help us, is try­ing to il­lu­mi­nate what do they un­der­stand of what we say,” he says. “I talk about one ex­per­i­ment in the new book that’s about this. It’s start­ing to seem that, though dogs un­der­stand us in some ways—they seem to un­der­stand some com­mu­ni­ca­tion from us—it does not ap­pear, at least to me, that they un­der­stand words the same way that we do. Words to us are what we call sym­bolic rep­re­sen­ta­tions; they are these ab­stract things that serve as place­hold­ers for the real things in the world. It does not seem that dogs have that ca­pac­ity—or, if they do, it’s very lim­ited. There’s only been a cou­ple dogs that have shown some ev­i­dence of that. So, when we study how they process lan­guage, it seems to be very dif­fer­ent. It seems to be more linked to what they do rather than these ab­stract rep­re­sen­ta­tions.”

That said, the ob­vi­ous ques­tion is: do dogs know their names?

“I don’t think that they do in the way that we un­der­stand our names,” Greg says. “When some­one says our name we know that that’s a thing that rep­re­sents us. But we haven’t seen any ev­i­dence that the dogs treat it that way. When a dog hears its name, it could mean, ‘Hey, I bet­ter look at the per­son who just said that be­cause some­thing in­ter­est­ing is go­ing to hap­pen.’ And that’s re­ally dif­fer­ent.”

Another lead­ing re­searcher in the field of dog cog­ni­tion is Alexandra Horowitz, best­selling au­thor of In­side of a Dog and, more re­cently, Be­ing a Dog, and head of the Dog Cog­ni­tion Lab at Columbia Uni­ver­sity’s Barnard Col­lege in New York.

“My doc­tor­ate is in cog­ni­tive science … it was at grad school that I got in­ter­ested in study­ing non-hu­man an­i­mal minds,” she says. “In par­tic­u­lar, I was in­ter­ested in find­ing ways that nat­u­ral be­hav­iour might give some clue as to the cog­ni­tion of the an­i­mal. I did a lot of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar work in var­i­ous an­i­mal be­hav­ior projects—with the south­ern white rhi­noc­eros, for in­stance—while study­ing the mind, and it led me to think­ing that play be­hav­iour would be an in­ter­est­ing place to look for ex­am­ples of the an­i­mal mind at work.”

While this was hap­pen­ing, Alexandra was liv­ing with her own dog, Pumper­nickel, tak­ing her to the beach and park three times a day to play.

“I fi­nally re­al­ized I should study dog play,” she says. “At that time there was no one in the U.S. study­ing what came to be called ‘dog cog­ni­tion’ at all, but I be­gan study­ing the dogs, con­nected their play be­hav­iour to the­ory of mind, and have been study­ing them ever since.”

Some of her work, ex­panded upon in her first book, sur­rounds the no­tion that, at some level, dogs may think about as­pects of their own lives. How­ever, when it comes to an­swer­ing ques­tions around whether dogs pos­sess a cer­tain level of self-aware­ness, or whether their mem­o­ries shape some sort of per­sonal iden­tity, Alexandra says these are no­to­ri­ously tricky to fig­ure out sci­en­tif­i­cally.

“Of course dog own­ers treat dogs as hav­ing a sense of their own iden­tity, be­cause we give them iden­ti­ties. It’s not clear what the dogs think,” she says. “We re­cently did an ex­per­i­ment where they smelled some of their own urine—dog-cog­ni­tion re­search isn't al­ways glam­orous!—out of con­text, and also other dogs’ urine. They were less in­ter­ested in their own than in other dogs’. Do they rec­og­nize it as ‘them­selves’? Prob­a­bly, yes. But that doesn't mean they are nec­es­sar­ily sit­ting around think­ing about them­selves the way hu­mans do.”

De­spite the fact that much of the ca­nine mind re­mains a mystery, she urges peo­ple not to be dis­suaded from try­ing to bet­ter un­der­stand their dogs.

“I think be­ing able to read your dog is the way to hav­ing a good re­la­tion­ship with him or her,” she says. “Your dog is al­ready spend­ing his life read­ing your be­hav­iour. When we start read­ing them back—in­stead of as­sum­ing that they either think ‘noth­ing’ or think ‘just like we would think’—then we can ap­pre­ci­ate them most. On the other hand, we of­ten

We pub­lished a study last year that mea­sured the dogs’ brain re­ward re­sponses to the an­tic­i­pa­tion of either food or praise. The ma­jor­ity of dogs showed re­sponses that equaled or ex­ceeded that of food, sug­gest­ing that so­cial re­wards are just as plea­sur­able to them as food.

an­thro­po­mor­phize—as­sum­ing dogs think just the way we do. There's no ev­i­dence that they do, over­all.” Greg agrees. “It’s a bal­ance,” he says. “In many of the ba­sic pro­cesses we find pretty clear ev­i­dence that dogs ex­pe­ri­ence many of the emotions that we do. The area that I think it starts to get ques­tion­able is when we as­sume that they have cer­tain cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties that they prob­a­bly don’t.”

This, he says, comes up es­pe­cially in at­tribut­ing guilt to a dog. To be guilty of some­thing re­quires a fair amount of cog­ni­tive hard­ware—in other words, an in­di­vid­ual needs to have a mem­ory of what hap­pened and needs to know they shouldn’t have done it.

“Their needs to be all these so­cial bits that we don’t know dogs have,” he ex­plains. “We don’t re­ally know how long their time hori­zon is, how far in the fu­ture they think of things. I think they have a sense of self that prob­a­bly is not as elab­o­rate as ours is, so when peo­ple project hu­man traits on dogs it kind of brings a lot of that bag­gage with it, and we don’t know if dogs have that bag­gage.”

That said, both he and Alexandra be­lieve the more we un­der­stand our dogs, the bet­ter—and, ad­di­tion­ally, that there is a whole lot left to learn.

“It would be hubris for any per­son, sci­en­tist or not, to say they ‘gen­er­ally un­der­stand’ the way their dogs think— how do we know? Has your dog told you?” says Alexandra, who is cur­rently de­vel­op­ing new stud­ies in her lab and work­ing on her next book, about the na­ture of the dog-hu­man bond in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety. “But that doesn't mean peo­ple can't be more or less good at read­ing dogs' be­hav­iour. Peo­ple who at­tend to their dogs—be they own­ers, work­ing dog han­dlers, or sci­en­tists—can be very good at read­ing dogs.”

Adds Greg, “Cer­tainly the last five or six years has re­ally been a Re­nais­sance in un­der­stand­ing ca­nine cog­ni­tion and just dogs in gen­eral, but it goes back and forth. You read sto­ries about this new find­ing in dog re­search, and the next year you read some­thing else that maybe con­tra­dicts it. The story of the ori­gin of dogs is kind of a clas­sic case—no one can de­cide when and where dogs orig­i­nated from. And that’s an im­por­tant piece of the puz­zle be­cause if we knew that, that would tell us some­thing about what dogs ac­tu­ally are—and it would also tell us some­thing about what peo­ple are, be­cause the two evo­lu­tion­ary tra­jec­to­ries are tied to­gether. The stuff we’re do­ing with brain imag­ing is just one way to ap­proach the prob­lem. But there’s still a lot that we don’t know.”

emo­tional My sys­tem­sare the es­sen­tially sameasy­ours!

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