Anybody who’s ever loved a dog has witnessed that emotion coming back a hundredfold in wagging tails and wet faces. But there’s only one guy who noted the phenomenon with his own pack and decided to turn it into a groundbreaking neurological study.
Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, initiated and conducted a first-of-its-kind functional MRI test of a fully-awake, non-restrained dog. He discovered that an area of the brain, called the caudate, reacts to positive stimuli the same way that a human brain does. The results were not that surprising to dog lovers –- of course our fur kids recognize and are emotionally connected to us. But to have that validated by actual scientific data is pretty nifty. The study itself could lead to better training and treatments for both dogs and humans.
The results also led Berns to write a controversial New York Times op-ed piece titled “Dogs Are People, Too,” arguing that since dogs are at least as sentient as your average infant, canines should be given some form of personhood under the law, and no longer treated as mere property. Needless to say, the article sparked plenty of debate, spawned several local news stories and even became monologue fodder for Ellen DeGeneres.
Now Berns’ full-length book is out, and it describes in engaging detail how he came up with the idea for the experiment. It was inspired by his relationships with his own dogs -– his Pug Newton and rescue terrier Callie — the vast differences in their personalities, and his desire to discover what was really going on in those furry little heads of theirs.
Complete with pictures, How Dogs Love Us is a really interesting, easily understandable –- and often very funny — account of how Berns developed an entirely new and ingenious protocol that insured the dogs would not suffer any undue injury or stress due to the experiment. In fact, the study would be treating animals like human subjects instead of mere property for the first time in a university setting –- the canines would have the absolute right to opt out if anything disturbed or upset them, or endangered their health and well-being. Their training partners, aka “owners,” signed a release akin to one used for children in similar situations.
Of course, this required quite a bit of hoop-jumping on Berns’ part with the university lawyers and other interested parties, but he persevered, in part to prove to his middle-school-age daughter Helen that science could be exciting and interesting. And from this nail-biting account, it most certainly is.
Once the experiment was approved, there were still big obstacles to climb -– each step of the process presented its own tense challenges. The biggest one, of course, was whether Berns and trainer Mark Spivak could get a dog to willingly climb up into the big scary machine and then stay stock still long enough to run a usable scan. This undertaking involved a lot of trial and error, including Berns getting his wife to agree to let him build a life-size model of an MRI in their living room and figuring out a way to protect the dogs’ hearing from the sounds of the machine.
During the very cool training regimen that he and Callie went through, allowing for her and other dogs to be awake, alert and safe within the noisy confines of the MRI tube, Berns and Callie bond in a way he’d never experienced before. It only strengthens his basic premise –- that dogs and humans share a very special connection, one that definitely runs both ways.
The Boston Globe’s glowing review of How Dogs Love Us picked up on that theme as well: “This book’s abundant appeal and value come from following Berns through the challenges of constructing the experiment and especially of training his dog to participate. ‘Like a catcher and pitcher,’ he writes, he and his dog ‘became a team.’ The satisfaction of that relationship perhaps explains why our two species have lived together so long and happily.”
With the success of the initial data, Berns is moving forward with the study, and is looking for a wide cross-section of dogs to participate –- different ages, breeds, temperaments and more. My dog niece Layla actually trained to be a subject, before the noise got to be too much. And though, as you might expect, therapy dogs and certain breeds like Border Collies turned out to be good matches, star students also include a Boston Terrier named Tigger and Huxley, a Brittany Spaniel mix.
According to Berns, the types of dog personalities that seem to do best are “calm, good in novel environments, good with strangers and other dogs, inquisitive, unafraid of loud noises and heights, and able to wear earmuffs.”
Let us know in the comments if you think your dog would be a good candidate for a study like this, and why or why not! And please consider picking up a copy of How Dogs Love Us for a fellow dog lover this holiday.
Would you like the chance to win a copy of How Dogs Love Us — autographed for us by Dr. Berns? If so, please do the following: