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Neuroscientist Gregory Berns Reveals What Dogs Are Thinking

By Claudia Kawczynska, November 2013, Updated June 2021
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns adopted Callie, a two-year-old mixed-breed, from a shelter at nine months and trained her to lie still in the scanner and wear ear protection.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns adopted Callie, a two-year-old mixed-breed, from a shelter at nine months and trained her to lie still in the scanner and wear ear protection.

We recently had the opportunity to talk with neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, lead researcher in the MRI-based Dog Project at Emory University, and author of the must-read book, How Dogs Love Us. He explains the significance of this research and its importance to dog lovers. His findings have convinced him that dogs are people too and deserving of more rights than what society gives them now. See his reasoning behind this conviction, and how it might change the status of all dogs.



I am curious about the much-popularized “pack leader” thesis and why your study findings point to it being a mistake. Why is that?
The pack leader idea originated from misunderstanding wolf behavior. Modern wolf research has revealed that the social dynamics of a pack revolve around the parents and that there is not truly an alpha-dog. Of course, dogs are not wolves, and humans aren’t alphas, so the analogy to wolf packs breaks down on several levels. What we are finding in our research is neurobiological evidence of the great social intelligence of dogs– especially their interspecies social intelligence–which is not based on a dominance hierarchy. I think the better analogy is for humans to be like the manager of a team (especially if you live with more than one dog!)


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Dogs have great observational skills when it comes to watching us. And there are some who believe that dogs have perfected this when it comes to food, and actually go so far as to contend that dogs “love” us for the food we provide. As Stephen Budiansky says, “they are great con artists.” I take it that you disagree with this, but can you tell us why your research proves otherwise?
This is the primary reason why we are doing MRIs. People can project whatever intentions they want onto a dog, but since dogs can’t speak, it remains a philosophical argument. But with MRI, we can see how specific parts of the dog’s brain responds to things like food and social reward. By comparing the relative amounts of activity, we can deduce how much of the dog’s motivation is due to food and how much is due to the social interaction with a human. We’re finding strong evidence that it is not just about food.

How do you know that dogs, such as your Callie, regard human family members differently from other humans?
Because we are presenting different types of stimuli to them while they are in the MRI. We have measured how their reward systems respond to the smell of different humans and different dogs. We have even measured how their brains respond to pictures of humans and dogs they know. Their brain responses show that they can tell the difference and that they have different emotional responses to these stimuli.

Is there any way to convince other researchers who are employing fMRIs with dogs to only do in the approach you have taken? Do you think it is necessary in science at all to have dogs who have been bred simply for this purpose?
We have raised the bar for treating the dogs as sentient individuals with free will. There are still over 50,000 dogs used in research every year, so it is an uphill battle. Most of these dogs are either bred as “laboratory-dogs” – usually beagles – or are acquired from shelters. I hope that our research will show that dogs have many of the same emotions that we do, and that it will become harder to justify using them as research subjects. An exception, however, is the need for dogs in veterinary research to benefit dogs health – like developing new treatments for canine cancer. It is a complex ethical issue to weigh the potential benefits against the suffering of another dog. Perhaps we should apply the same ethical standards we use in human medical research.

You cast a big vote for the personhood of dogs, can you explain how your research shows that dogs deserve this status?
Dogs are considered property under the law. The MRI data makes it harder to deny that dogs have feelings very much like we do and that they deserve a consideration under the law that treats them as more than a piece of furniture. Some people disagree that experiencing emotions is sufficient, and that they would need some sort of moral compass. I disagree.

Why did you decide to only use positive training techniques with Callie and the other dogs?
Because it is the right thing to do. Besides, if we used aversive techniques, all we would have gotten were fearful dogs in the scanner. Fear trumps all other emotions and cognition.

Where is the Dog Project now? What more do you hope to achieve with it?
It continues to grow. We have 25 community dog-human teams in the project. Half of the dogs are “MRI-certified” and have done several cognitive experiments in the scanner. In addition to smell, we’ve been studying the relative reward-response to owner versus an unfamiliar human versus an inanimate object giving signals, like a computer. This will tell us more precisely how socially attuned the dogs are. We’re also studying the differences between the dogs – why some have greater responses than others. We have several service/therapy dogs on the team, and it is beginning to look like their brains react differently than the other dogs. We also hope to study separation anxiety. So many questions!

If there is only one “take away” readers can take from your work, what would you hope that to be?
Dogs’ brains react in many of the same ways that humans’ brains do. We like many of the same things, and dogs value social bonds just like us. Dogs’ superior social intelligence is what makes them dogs!


Photograph by Bryan Meltz