When your dog gazes up at you lovingly, it may be difficult to tell what exactly is it thinking. Many dog lovers draw all kinds of inferences about how their pets feel about them, but no one has captured images of actual canine thought processes - until now.
Researchers at the Emory University have developed a new method to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species, the journal Public library of Science ONE reports.
The technique relies on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain, according to an Emory statement.
“It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog. As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously,” says Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Centre for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project.
Key members of the team include Andrew Brooks, graduate student at the centre for Neuropolicy and Mark Spivak, professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta.
Two dogs were involved in the project’s first phase. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog. Berns adopted her from a shelter. McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, who was already well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate.
Both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.
In the first experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another signal meant it would not receive one.
The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.
“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”