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When neu­ro­sci­en­tist GRE­GORY BERNS saw mil­i­tary dogs jump­ing from he­li­copters, he thought that maybe pooches could be trained to go into MRI scan­ners too

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This month, we dis­cuss What It’s Like To Be A Dog by Gre­gory Berns, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist who thought that pooches could be trained to go into MRI scan­ners

Most neu­ro­sci­en­tists study hu­mans. Why did you start look­ing at dogs?

Af­ter 20 years of work­ing with hu­mans, I had this crazy idea. I wanted to know about the dog-hu­man re­la­tion­ship. Do they love us in the way we love them? Or is it all a sham, an in­no­cent du­plic­ity prop­a­gated by dogs to act all cute in ex­change for food and shel­ter?

How did you get started?

Ev­ery­one thought I was crazy, but I teamed up with a lo­cal dog trainer and taught Cal­lie, my black ter­rier mix, to go into an MRI scan­ner un­re­strained, com­pletely awake, so I could see what she was think­ing. We then re­cruited other vol­un­teers and ended up with a dozen dogs who were trained to sit still in MRIs.

You called them vol­un­teers?

We fol­lowed three rules. We didn’t do any­thing to harm the dogs, we didn’t re­strain them at all, and we gave them the right of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion. We pro­vided steps for them to walk in and out of the scan­ner in­stead of plac­ing them in. The dogs had the same fun­da­men­tal priv­i­lege as hu­mans par­tic­i­pat­ing in re­search: the right to refuse.

So, what is it like to be a dog?

Our most im­por­tant find­ing was how dif­fer­ent the dogs are from each other. Im­plicit in our ques­tion ‘What is it like to be a dog?’ is the as­sump­tion that all dogs are the same. But that’s ridicu­lous! That’s like ask­ing what it’s like to be hu­man. Like hu­mans, dogs are in­di­vid­u­als, and no mat­ter what ex­per­i­ment we do, there’s al­ways a range of brain ac­tiv­ity pat­terns that cor­re­spond to their per­son­al­i­ties. What were your most im­por­tant find­ings? We’ve done over a dozen dif­fer­ent ex­per­i­ments. In one, we found that dogs have a part of their brain that recog­nises faces, just like pri­mates and hu­mans. We don’t know whether that’s hard­wired or a learned re­sponse from liv­ing with hu­mans, but we now know that they pay at­ten­tion to our faces.

In another, we looked at how dogs process the smells of mem­bers of their house­hold, and we found that a dog’s re­ward sys­tem is most re­spon­sive to the smell of their owner, in­di­cat­ing that the smell has a pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion for them.

Is that pos­i­tive as­so­ci­a­tion be­cause they love us, or are they just us­ing us for food?

We did an ex­per­i­ment where one hand sig­nal meant that they’d get a treat, and another meant that their owner would pop in to view and praise them. We found that those re­ward sys­tems were equally ac­tive. The ex­per­i­ment showed that praise it­self is re­ward­ing to the dog too. It’s not just all about food.

We can’t say ex­actly what that feels like for the dogs, but we know that when we give them things that they like, such as food or praise, we see a re­ward sys­tem re­sponse that’s sim­i­lar to what we see in hu­mans. From that, I con­cluded that it’s highly likely that the dogs are feel­ing some­thing sim­i­lar to how we feel when we’re given some­thing we like.

As dog own­ers, what do we need to know?

We often an­thro­po­mor­phise too much – dogs aren’t minia­ture hu­mans. They may un­der­stand some things but they don’t have the real es­tate in the brain to process lan­guage like we do. So, prac­ti­cally, less is more when we’re speak­ing to our an­i­mals. Fewer words is bet­ter, and con­sis­tency is crit­i­cal.

But they do have ba­sic emo­tions like we do. They ex­pe­ri­ence neg­a­tive ones like fear and anxiety, but they also en­joy things and ex­pe­ri­ence plea­sure, too.


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