Seven Questions About How Your Dog’s Brain Works

You asked your canine cognition curiosities and a neuroscientist answered.

dog looking around at dog park
© Moonjelly Productions/Science Friday

When your human friends aren’t feeling well, you can ask them what’s wrong. But for dog owners, it can be difficult to gauge what’s on the minds of our furry friends—one can only glean so much from wagging tails. If dogs could talk, what would they say about us and the way they see the world? Just how do dogs think?

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, featured in the most recent episode of The Macroscope, is trying to answer those questions in his lab at Emory University. Rather than glimpse into puppy eyes, he taps into their brain activity. In the Dog Project, Berns and his team train volunteer pet dogs to get their brains scanned in an fMRI machine to better understand what they are actually thinking—and what their cognition tells us about ourselves.

“I would say dogs are special, and that’s not just because I’m a dog person,” Berns told Science Friday in a recent radio interview. “Dogs are the first animals to live with humans and so they represent a key link to our past—what makes us humans in terms of how they see us, how do they respond to us. What is it exactly that they’re doing that allows them to live so easily with us as well as other animals?”

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You tweeted in your burning canine cognition curiosities—contemplating everything from dogs’ perception of time to differences in personality. With dogged determination, SciFri collected some of the questions to get a little bit closer to understanding our canine companions.

Gregory Berns: In terms of [a dog choosing] love or food, we’ve done that type of experiment where we present a cue to them that signals “Hey, you’re going to get a piece of food in a few seconds,” and we register the brain’s response to that cue signaling that and then we do the same thing with a different cue that says, “Hey, your owner is going to pop into view and praise you and say good girl.” And all we do is we look at specific circuits in the dog’s brain associated with reward and see which which of those cues is most effective at activating it. And I think most people will be happy to know that at least in the dogs that we’ve studied we found that both were equally activating to the dog’s reward system, meaning that they do like food obviously but they also liked their owner or their human just for the social contact itself.

Gregory Berns: The thing about language that amazes me is that we humans talk constantly, frequently without saying much, too. And it’s amazing that dogs can kind of pick out salient words out of this kind of stream of jibberish coming from us and somehow magically know what that means.

So the question—and we’re pursuing this right now—is does a word to a dog mean the same thing as the word to a human? And this is a very complicated cognitive skill, so we know the word if I say “stick,” for example. We call up a mental image of a stick and we know that that word is a symbolic representation for the real thing. That may mean that maybe dogs don’t quite have all of that neural hardware to do that. They may be able to associate the sounds perhaps with the object but we’re not sure that they have kind of the ability to abstractly represent what we call semantics, but we’re trying to figure that out.

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Gregory Berns on emotions: In many cases when they’re in the scanner, they’re in kind of a more contained state, and yet what’s amazing to me is even though the dogs are still in the scanner they’re all doing what they’re supposed to do. We can still detect differences in how they’re reacting to these very salient cues so they are experiencing these things and I would call them emotions, actually.

Gregory Berns: The answer is yes. They obviously have a sense of time, and the reason I say that is because all animals have some kind of sense of time and they can do it in a variety of ways. They have internal rhythms, circadian rhythms, that govern the 24 hour cycle. You can gauge time by how hungry you are, by whether your bladder is filling up, by the change in lighting outside. These are all cues that dogs pick up on.

Gregory Berns: There have been a couple of groups who have studied this. So one study, actually the original study, looked at “do dogs recognize their own urine?” And the answer appears to be yes. That’s not quite the version of the mirror tests, so another study recently replicated that by seeing if dogs recognize their urine adulterated with some other substance and the answer could be yes. But the issue of self-awareness I think is fascinating and just because dogs don’t recognize themselves in the mirror generally does not mean that they’re not self-aware. It may be they’re not visually self-aware.

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Gregory Berns: The issue of personality is something very dear to my heart and one of the growing areas in this line of research… Now it’s sometimes difficult to measure dog personality, but there are various ways you can do it. So you can go online, you can find there’s one questionnaire that’s called the C-BARQ made by the folks at [the University of Pennsylvania]. You can answer about 50 questions about your dog and you’ll get a personality and temperament profile. So we’ve actually used that in some of the dogs that are trained for the MRI and what we have found is that there are specific personality types that show up differently in their brain responses.

The one that probably makes the most difference is how aggressive the dog is—are they aggressive to other dogs or are they aggressive to other people? What we’ve found in those dogs is there’s a particular part of their brain called the amygdala, which is associated with what we call physiologic arousal—it’s a part of the brain that really gets you revved up—and those dogs seem to have more of a hair trigger on that structure, particularly when they encounter a person they haven’t met before or sometimes perhaps even a dog they haven’t met before. So there are definitely differences.

Gregory Berns: It’s a tough question because even though we’ve studied 50 dogs in Atlanta and another 50 in California, there’s over 100 breeds so we don’t have the numbers to answer that question. But what I can tell you, we did one study where we partnered with Canine Companions for Independence to study service dogs, and those dogs were all golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers and mixes. And so even within one very homogeneous breed we find tremendous variation. And this gets back to the previous question about personalities, that we find as much variation in the dog’s brain responses as we do in equivalent experiments in humans. So dogs are as different from each other as humans are different from each other. Now what that means for breeds is it’s probably even greater between the breeds.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Meet the Writer

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young was Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

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