Dogs in Science
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A Dog in My Family Is a Guinea Pig of Neuroscience

Layla is helping an Emory University team gauge the thoughts and emotions of dogs.

 |  Nov 6th 2013  |   3 Contributions


My dog-niece Layla and her family volunteered to take part in a fascinating neuroscience study going on at Emory University to find out what dogs really think of their owners -- well, at least how they recognize and interact with humans they know.

Here’s the trick, though -- and it really is a trick -- the dogs have to lie completely motionless in an MRI machine, without medication or restraint, so their responses to external cues can be recorded.

Layla, a four-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, is awesome and smart, but she wasn’t exactly the valedictorian of her obedience class, so this was definitely going to be a challenge.

You might have heard about this study from a New York Times op-ed piece, “Dogs Are People, Too,” since it went viral -- in fact, Ellen Degeneres just did a monologue on it, and of course, Dogster covered it too. I mean, it’s no surprise to us that dogs are at least as sentient as human infants -- just say the word “leash” and you’ll see your fur kids reacting to it as excitedly as if we’d heard the phrase “new iPhone.”

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The Perling family, including Layla.

The doctor behind the experiment -- Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University -- is the author of the recently released How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. He developed the study to examine the area of the brain called the caudate, which is known to show activity when positive emotions, such as love, are triggered in humans. It stands to reason that it might do the same in dogs. Of course, proving it is something else, especially because the dogs would have to be awake during the scan.

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Dr. Gregory Berns with a dog named Callie. Photo by Bryan Meltz

But the last thing Berns, a longtime dog owner and -lover himself, wanted to do was put any canine at risk. So he developed a novel approach when it came to the protocol for his trial. As he explains in his New York Times article, “From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.”

So he worked with a Atlanta trainer and handler, Mark Spivak, to identify dogs and their people who might be interested in participating in this study. And that was where my sister-in-law Rhonda and her rescue dog Layla came in. Coincidentally, Rhonda’s not only a dog lover, but she’s spent her entire career working to help people with brain injuries find proper treatment and support. So Berns’s study was right up her alley.

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Callie in MRI simulator. Photo by HPBerns Photography

Layla had already participated in an introductory obedience class with Spivak, so she was invited to join a group of eight to 10 dogs -- all ages, breeds and sexes -- who met twice a month at Spivak’s indoor training facility. The ultimate goal was to get the dogs to climb up a short run of stairs into the magnetic resonance imaging device -- the same machine used in human medicine -- lie down, place their chins on a padded wooden headrest fitted especially for them, and stay still for 10 seconds to 30 seconds at a time. Their owner/trainer would stand in front of them, giving them hand signals to wait and stay while the device measured the dog’s caudate response. Piece of cake, right?

For several of the dogs, who’re trained as service animals, it was pretty easy. Others surprised Berns. There’s a Boston Terrier named Tigger in the study, who turned out to be imminently trainable -- once they figured out a way to build a chin rest for a breed who doesn’t really have one.

Now it was Layla’s chance to shine. The first phase of her training was the necessary review of sit, down, stay. “Especially down, down is the whole point,” says Rhonda. A couple of weeks later, the dogs and owners were introduced to the simulator, a model built to the exact scale of a real MRI. Food, clickers and praise were all involved as the dogs practiced climbing the stairs, and lying still in the tube.

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Layla in her headrest. Photo by HPBerns Photography

Training went on for several months during which Rhonda, her husband Lewis and kids Izzy, 15, and Josh, 12, worked with Layla and the headrest at the training facility and at home. Finally, they got her to lie perfectly still for 90 seconds. “That was huge,” says Rhonda.

But the loud whirring noise the machine makes was the next challenge to overcome. Berns and his team had already developed a set of earmuffs, wrapped with gauze, to protect the study dogs’ ears from the noise. Layla wasn’t thrilled, but with praise and treat reinforcement, she kept ‘em on.

Finally, the day arrived for Layla to hear the sound while inside the simulator. She was not a fan. The first time, she turned around and bolted down the stairs. Over a period of weeks, supported by positive reinforcement, she tried it again. And she scampered out of the simulator the same way. The sound ended up “causing her too much anxiety,” so Rhonda, Berns, Spivak -- and Layla -- all decided she should be excused from the trial.

As for the study, it’s still going strong, with a third group of dogs and owners already in training to participate. Berns is hopeful his research will ultimately give us a “more objective way to understand what goes on in dogs’ minds, both emotionally and cognitively.”

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Rhonda and Layla

Finally, though Berns notes that dogs have “a limited behavioral repertoire to express feelings,” this research may aid in helping them do so. As dog lovers, we’ve all felt the frustration of our beloved animals not being able to communicate when they’re sick or upset. How cool would it be if vets and pet guardians were actually able to “talk” to their animals?

And to think, Layla had a part in discovering that? I can’t wait for the day when I’ll be able to get a direct quote from her.

For her part, Rhonda has no regrets at all -- “great things still came out of it. Layla now listens wonderfully,” and the training she did with each family member “really brought them all closer. Even though she didn’t save the world, she is a better family member because of the experience.”

About the author: Toni Perling of Atlanta writes mostly about dogs -- hence her blogger name, Doggienista, and her two beautiful rescues, Daisy Jo and Bud Earl. She tweets for them at DaisyJoBudEarl and covers all the latest Hollywood dog scoop at her Celebrity Dog Blog. She's also a longtime supporter of spay/neuter/rescue, and adopted her first dog, a sweet lovable mutt named Sophie, from an L.A. County shelter. Toni started out in Hollywood as a TV writer, with credits ranging from network drama to informational, including a boatload of episodes of a little Discovery Networks show named I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant, before transitioning to the web.

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