When Gregory Berns, director of the Emory University Center, saw that a U.S Navy dog had been trained to jump out of helicopters and airplanes, he knew our canine friends had immense cognitive abilities. In other words, Berns wanted to find out what is really going on in Fido’s head and what he is thinking!
“Nobody, as far as I know, had ever captured images of a dog’s brain that wasn’t sedated. This was [a] fully awake, unrestrained dog, here we have a picture for the first time ever of her brain”, says Berns.
The scientist trained two dogs to sit still in a brain-scanning machine, an MRI scanner (magnetic resonance imaging): Callie, a 2-year-old feist, a southern squirrel-hunting dog and McKenzie, a 3-year-old border collie.
Callie and McKenzie responded to a hand-signals associated with getting a hot-dog treat or a signal that meant “no treat”. When the dogs saw the signal associated with a tasty treat, the region in the brain associated with rewards became active, the same “rewards region” in humans. When they saw the hand-signal for “no treat”, the “rewards region” remained inactive.
“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals” says Berns. “Now we can really begin to understand what dogs are thinking. We hope this opens a whole new door into canine cognition, social cognition of other species”. Berns stresses the long relationship dogs have had with humans, suggesting that the interaction between dogs and humans may have shaped human language and other tools of civilization.
The team will continue this study and research further to see how dogs represent human facial expressions and human language.