When I’m leaving home to go shopping, go to work or whatever, does my dog miss me when I’m away?
I’m sure you have asked yourself that many times. The question is often hotly debated. Some say no, the dog is just an animal, they have no sense of loyalty or emotional bonding. They simply bond to you because you are the one who supplies the food and
Others say, of course! It’s obvious they love their pack members and miss them when they’re away. Can’t you see how happy the dog gets when the family members come back? And it does like hanging out with the kids, even though they never serve the food.
Now science has an answer for us! Professor Gregory Berns, neuroscientist, has spent his recent years in a project using functional MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to understand what dogs think and feel. He and his team have trained dogs to go into an MRI scanner, fully awake. This kind of MRI shows the brain activity that occurs in the brain as a response to outer events.
When it comes to dogs, that means an opportunity to show that dogs actually have intense emotions without taking to the more shaky and limiting behaviorism. Scanning brain activity through MRI is not dependent on interpreting behaviors, which can easily become subjective.
It’s not an easy task to train dogs to hold their head completely still, which is required for a successful MRI scanning. Not all dogs are capable of doing that. Sedating the dogs is not an option since that would make it impossible to perform the experiments. The dogs need to be fully awake, aware and relaxed.
With the help of dog trainer Mark Spivak, two dogs, one of them professor Berns’ own Callie, were trained using positive reinforcement only. The dogs were free to leave whenever they wanted to. After a few months, they were ready for actual scanning.
The very first results showed that the reward system in the dog’s brain can tell apart hand signals meaning food reward or no food reward.
Later results have also shown that the dogs react emotionally when their owner returns after stepping aside for a moment. (The scanning sessions are short, so the layout of the experiments has to take that into consideration.)
But does my dog love me then? According to Berns and his research using functional MRI, it may very well do that. In addition to the emotional reaction to seeing their owner, the dogs also react with increased brain activity in the caudate nucleus when they experience the scent of their owner. The caudate nucleus is the part of the brain in both humans and dogs that is activated when we anticipate things we like and enjoy.
Gregory Berns is doing groundbreaking work with his research on animal and specifically canine motivation and decision-making. The results show that animals most likely have emotions just like us. They feel love, fear
What does this mean for our understanding of how we should treat and look upon dogs and other animals?
If it’s true that dogs are sentient beings much like us, can we really regard them as our property? Or are they perhaps just as entitled to rights as we are? This is a fundamental philosophical issue. I think it deserves an article of its own!