Research Reveals What Your Dog Is Really Thinking

Updated: February 10, 2021
Published: December 13, 2017
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I would love to talk to my dog—or at least know what he is thinking. Dr. Gregory Berns is trying to do just that. Berns, a researcher and physician at Emory University in Atlanta, has been doing the impossible since 2011. That is when he started studies with dogs trained to stay absolutely still in an MRI scanner to see how their brains respond to various tasks.

The same MRI machine that your doctor uses to look at your injured joints can be recalibrated to measure brain activity, a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). fMRI measures blood flow to different parts of the brain. The researchers then correlate that variation in blood flow to the tasks the dog (or human) performs to interpret what the dog thinks.

Your Dog Loves You as Much as Food

In one task constructed by Berns, the dogs were rewarded with either praise from their human or a food reward. When the results of all of the dogs were analyzed together, there was no difference in the magnitude of the response between the two types of rewards. That means that averaged together, dogs seemed to love food just as much as they loved their people. But when the results from each dog were analyzed individually, that’s when everything became interesting.

As he described in his new book, “What It’s Like to Be a Dog,” Berns saw real personality differences between the dogs who volunteered for the study. Some were chow-hounds—always searching for that extra morsel of food. Others sought approval from their people during the training phase of tasks. These differences were apparent in how the dogs’ brains responded to the different types of rewards. This kind of confirmation that brain activity matches temperament makes way for more complex studies of canine cognition.

I have one of those dogs who is easy to read. He loves people and other dogs first and food is way behind, bringing up the rear. I can put food on the floor and he will sit and wait for the cue to eat it. But if a new person comes to visit, there is no holding him back. I know where he would fall in the spectrum of Berns’s research dogs.

Understanding the Canine Thought Process

In his book, Berns describes several of his other recent studies, including that dogs recognize faces using a special part of the brain analogous to the structure in the human brain. Dogs have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years and have relied on their ability to read human emotions for their food and shelter. Therefore, it’s illuminating but not surprising that dogs have a special part of their brain dedicated to facial processing.

Apart from dogs, Berns and his colleagues also study the brains of other animals, including dolphins, sea lions, and Tasmanian devils. Though that last species may seem like an odd choice, Berns was trying to better understand the extinct thylacine of the Australian continent. Very little is known about the thylacine, a wolf-like marsupial driven to extinction by the sheepherders from its last stronghold in Tasmania in the early 1900s. Some believe a small population still exists in the wild backcountry of the island. In addition to satisfying his intellectual curiosity, Berns hopes that by studying preserved brains from museum collections he can shed light into the behavior of the animal. And, if there is an existing population, help field researchers locate the remaining individuals.

This kind of research into animal neuroscience, studying how animals think, has real utility, too. As Berns discussed recently with The New York Times, dogs raised to be service dogs undergo extensive and expensive training for years before they can be paired with a person. But Berns and his colleagues found that dogs who show more activity in areas of the brain associated with self-control are more likely to succeed at their training. Earlier screening would allow organizations who train service dogs to focus their energy on those puppies more likely to succeed.

The next frontier, in my opinion, is understanding what makes working dogs good at their jobs. What is it in the brain of a Border Collie that makes her so good at herding sheep or the brain of a Bird Dog that makes him so excellently focused on flushing quail? Just as many tests of conformation have helped improve the health of breeds, might pre-breeding brain scans promote breed function and mental health?

As an advocate for shelter dogs, I would love to see brain studies applied to those dogs who need the most help finding homes. Not all dogs are cut out for participating in these kinds of studies. Berns and his colleagues spent years working with a very select group of dogs who were able to stay still and who wanted to participate. But I think all dogs can benefit from this kind of research that allows us to peek inside dogs’ brains to learn a little bit of how they think.

Dr. Elfenbein is a veterinarian and animal behaviorist located in Atlanta. Her mission is to provide pet parents with the information they need to have happy, and healthy, and fulfilled relationships with their dogs and cats.