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Decoding the Canine Brain

A fairly recent – and exciting – leap forward in the field of canine cognition and emotion comes from Dr. Gregory Berns and his team at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Ga.

In May 2012, they published an article detailing how they’d managed to train a few dogs to willingly go into an MRI scanner and stay perfectly still while fully awake. Dr. Berns had been inspired to try it after learning that dogs in the military had been successfully trained to join human soldiers jumping out of airplanes and helicopters – think high, loud and windy – and figured an MRI scanner had to be a piece of cake.

While it wasn’t a piece of cake, by fall 2013, the team had a dozen “MRI-Certified” dogs that they’ve been working with to conduct studies into the brain structure and chemistry of our canine friends. Other research centers, including the Family Dog Project in Hungary, have been conducting similar training and research.

What have they found so far?

  • Dogs’ brains are remarkably similar to ours. They share similar structures, activity, and hormone responses.
  • Dogs love us and miss us when we’re gone. Researchers have found that the pleasure centers of the brain light up in dogs when their owners return from a period out of sight, proving that they’re actually happy to see you.
  • Dogs respond to human emotions. Research published last February out of Hungary compared MRI scans of humans and dogs who were exposed to human voices and other non-vocal sounds. They found that the dogs were able to distinguish the voices, and that the brains of humans and dogs responded in a similar manner to emotional sounds such as laughter and crying.


So what does this mean?


While most of us are not surprised by these findings, this means that there is concrete evidence that dogs have emotions and are not just displaying an instinctual response, as some philosophers and scientists have suggested in the past. That is, people who have been accused of being sentimental and anthropomorphizing animals have been right all along.


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