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Understanding Our Dogs' Thoughts
Study uses MRIs to figure out what’s going on inside the canine brain

I spend so much time with my dogs that I feel like I know exactly what’s going on inside their heads. But of course I don’t. When I walk in the door, how do I know that Nemo is genuinely happy to see me or is just excited to smell all the interesting scents I brought home on my clothes?

Researchers at Emory University are setting out to understand what our dogs are thinking. Using an MRI to capture brain images, they’re looking at what parts of the brain activate in response to certain activities, like when we talk to our dogs. Scientists believe that this is the cornerstone to knowing what a dog is thinking.

Neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns came up with the idea for the study after learning about canines in the military. He figured that if dogs can be trained to jump out of helicopters, teaching them to stay still in an MRI machine would be doable.

It took eight months for researchers to train two dogs to climb into the machine, put their head in the head coil, and stay still, all while wearing noise-reducing earmuffs. The first study looked at the dogs' brain response to hand signals that indicated whether or not they would receive a hot dog.  

The researchers are now looking at more complicated studies on how dogs process human language and if they recognize people by sight or smell. I’m really looking forward to seeing the results of their work on canine empathy. The plan is to show dogs a photo of a person being poked with a pin and seeing if it triggers a pain response in the dog’s brain.

We know that our pups have a profound effect on our emptions and health. Knowing more about what our dogs are thinking can help us understand the effect that we have on them.  

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

Screenshot from Emory University.

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