What Does Your Dog Really Think About You?

24:55 minutes

Sit. Come. Stay. Your dog knows how to do it all, and she even seems to understand what you’re saying. But every dog owner has probably wondered what exactly is going on inside the mind of their prized pooch. Does Spot really understand what you’re saying, or is he just trained by the treat bag? Does Fluffy have a concept of time? And how do our furry companions make sense of the world?

[Did you know there’s a difference between poisonous and venomous creatures? Put your knowledge to the test.]

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, the subject of the latest Macroscope video, has trained dogs to sit inside fMRI scans to see what happens inside their brains when they are presented with rewards and new faces, among other things. He and Ira dig into the world of dog cognition, to figure out what dogs really think and feel.

Meanwhile, here in the Science Friday office, we had a little dog-nition debate going, so we asked Twitter to weigh in. Here’s what you said:

Segment Guests

Gregory Berns

Gregory Berns is a professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Most dog people will agree your dog is one of the most valued members of the family, right? I have four grand dogs, and I can tell you, we love them all. And it seems to go both ways. When you’re excitedly greeted at the door, don’t you say, hey, the dog knows I was gone, it’s happy to see me. Or they tilt their head from side to side when you’re talking.

Seems like they’re trying to understand but how true is this what is your dog really thinking or feeling. How does your prized pooch make sense of the world. These are exactly the questions that might next guest had about his own dog, and he’s been testing out those ideas by training dogs to sit quietly for a long time in an FMRI scanner, and looking at how their brains process information. Gregory Berns is professor of psychology at Emory University. Thanks for joining us, Dr. Berns.

GREGORY BERNS: It’s great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: And I want to let our listeners know that our latest macroscope video features Dr. Bern’s lab, where you can see all of these dogs hopping into this scanner. It’s up on our website at sciencefriday.com/dogbrains. It’s just a wonderful video, and we get to see how you work with these dogs. And the first thing that surprised me is, how do you get them to sit so quietly inside the MRI machine?

GREGORY BERNS: Lots of treats and lots of fun.

Seriously, the whole way that we train the dogs is built around this idea that the dog doesn’t know what an MRI scanner is. So they don’t have any reason to be afraid of it, not knowing what it is. So we just train the dogs to associate all the aspects of it– the noise, the steps, the patient table, the thing we call the head coil that they have to put their head in– we train them outside the scanner, typically, for a couple of months. And the idea is to make it a game.

So everything that we do is paired with either food if the dog is really food motivated or with play. And so to them, we hope it really is just a game.

IRA FLATOW: And if you have questions about your dog or you want to express how you think your dog feels about you, our number, 844-724-8255. You can also tweet us at @scifri. Now you are a neuroscientist. Why are you interested in studying dog brains? What scientifically interests you, besides you have a dog, which could be a reason enough, I feel.

GREGORY BERNS: Well, I think that is actually a reason enough. And you know, my training as a neuroscientist, I spent 20 years studying the human brain, specifically how human brains make decisions and what motivates us. And the dog project really was just a crazy idea initially, which was, hey, can I train my dog to go on the scanner so I can see what she’s thinking.

And initially, it was just an idea in search of a question. And then it grew from that. And I think we’ve backed into a lot of the science now in terms of the things that are important about dogs.

And so I would say dogs are special, and that’s not just because I’m a dog person. Dogs are the first animals to live with humans, and so they represent a key link to our past, what makes us human 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 with us so easily as well as other animals.

These are very basic questions that we don’t fully understand, and yet they also tell us something about being human as well.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking with Dr. Gregory Berns, professor of psychology at Emory. Also a happy dog owner, and someone who’s putting dogs through his MRI. Most past studies about how dogs think are behavioral studies. You’re actually looking at brain scans as the dogs are being shown objects. That’s sort of a new idea. What can you get from a brain scan compared to a behavior study?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, that’s a great question. So when I started doing this, we started with doing behavioral experiments with dogs, and just asking them to make choices. So kind of a classic example that I think everyone wants to know the answer to is, does my dog love me.

Well, that’s a really hard question to answer. So some of the ways you might go about doing that with a behavioral test would be maybe you put a person in one part of a room, and a treat in the other, and you might see what does the dog choose. Well, we’ve done that sort of experiment, and I’ll tell you, the dog’s strategies on these things kind of run the gamut.

Some dogs just pick one side, and they just go to the same side. They just go left constantly. Or some dogs will sample back and forth. Or some dogs will just stick with the thing that they like the most or paid off the first time. Or usually, they just look for the nearest human and see what cues they’re giving them.

So it’s really difficult, I think, to understand what’s going on inside a dog’s head just from their behavior. And it’s very challenging to design good behavioral experiments because dogs are so attuned to the humans around them that they suffer from what we call the Clever Hans effect.

IRA FLATOW: The who?

GREGORY BERNS: Clever Hans was a horse in the ’20s who supposedly could count or do arithmetic. And what the horse was actually doing was picking up subconscious cues from their handler. So in psychology, it’s called the Clever Hans effect. It’s when the animals pick up cues from the people around them.

IRA FLATOW: So it wasn’t Mr. Ed.


IRA FLATOW: So by looking at scans, can you solve that problem? Does my dog love me?

GREGORY BERNS: I think we can. I think we’re getting close to it. Because when we’re scanning the dogs, they’re completely awake, and they’re not really doing anything in terms of a task. We’re not generally asked them to make choices. They’re just in the scanner the same way a human would be. And then we just show them things.

So in terms of dog 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’s 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 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 like their owner, their human, just for the social contact itself.

IRA FLATOW: I’m glad that you could verify that when my dog is jumping up and down to see me, that it’s really love. So we’re going to take a break and come back and talk more with Dr. Gregory Berns, Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Our number, 844-724-8255.

Lots of dog lovers out there, and we’ll talk more, take your phone calls, and find out whether Dr. Berns wants to throw a bone to the cat lovers out there to see what they’re thinking. That’s a whole different story, we’ll find out why after the break. Stay with us.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, talking with Gregory Berns, Professor of Psychology at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Berns, do people call you the dog whisperer at all?

GREGORY BERNS: Only behind my back.

IRA FLATOW: As you can imagine, we have so many questions. But because we have, I’m sure, a lot of cat owners out there, can you do the same thing with a cat or do you not care to? Or do you have different results?

GREGORY BERNS: I talk a lot, and when I give talks, inevitably, someone comes up to me and says, I have a cat who can do this. And I say, OK, great, show me. And I haven’t met that cat yet.

IRA FLATOW: I just want to tell other people, just to remind people, that we have a gray macroscope video up there on our web site in Dr. Berns’s lab, where you can see all of these dogs hopping into the scanner. It’s on our website at sciencefriday.com/dogbrains.

Lots of people with questions. Let’s go to them. Let’s go to Mary Grace in Birmingham, Alabama. Hi, Mary.

AUDIENCE: Hi, Ira. How are you doing?

IRA FLATOW: Fine, go ahead. Welcome.

AUDIENCE: Awesome, thank you so much. Dr. Berns, I was wondering if you could be a little bit about what you’ve seen regarding different personalities in dog. My question is brought on because I honestly think my husband thinks I’m a little crazy, but we had two very large dogs with very distinct and separate personalities.

And in fact, one of our dogs, one of the main differences in my mind is how one of our dogs react when we leave and then come home. If we’re gone for an hour or two, one of our dogs, who walks to the door, he’s like, hey, how is it going, glad you’re back.

But the other dog has a complete breakdown. It’s like this cataclysmic event in his mind that, oh my gosh, I’m so glad you are back. And he’ll cry, he’ll fall down on the floor, literally crying, and whining, and shaking for about 15 minutes. So I just think it’s so interesting how you can have two dogs that grew up in the same household for their whole lives, just like you can have two kids, who had such drastically different responses to the same event. Can you talk at all about what you’ve seen regarding personality differences between dogs in your studies?

GREGORY BERNS: Sure. And thank you for that question, that is a really good question. And the issue of personality is something very dear to my heart, and one of the growing areas in this line of research. So when we started out, which was now seven years ago, we were pursuing how the dog brain just works. And now the questions are really about what makes an individual dog’s brain work, and why is that dog’s brain different than another dog’s brain.

And so some of the clues that we’ve had to this comes from correlating these brain responses with aspects of the dog’s personality.

Now it’s sometimes difficult to measure a 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 CBARQ or the CBARQ made by the folks at Penn. And 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. And the one that probably makes the most difference is how aggressive the dog is. Are they aggressive to other dogs, are they aggressive to other people.

And what we found in those dogs is there’s a particular part of the brain called the amygdala, which is associated with what we call physiologic arousal. It’s the 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. So I would say you’re not imagine this and you’re not crazy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I have seen, Mary Grace, the same thing that you have with dogs. One owner goes away, the dog is just whining until the owner comes back, and is just jumping up and down and is happy to see. Dr. Berns, is that a measurable kind of thing?

GREGORY BERNS: I think it is. I mean, it’s very messy to measure these things kind of when it’s happening, and that’s why I think we can get clues to what’s going on inside their minds by using the imaging. Because 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 on 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.

IRA FLATOW: Can you test, and have you tested for– you know, I’ve watched dogs watch other dogs on television. Do they know that that’s a real dog on TV?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I would love to know the answer to that. We’ve done some work with human faces. So we’ve projected human faces and dog faces on a screen while the dog is in the scanner. And what we found is that just like humans, the dogs have a part of their brain in their visual system that seems dedicated to processing faces, both human and dog faces.

So we know that they have the hardware there to process these things. Now where it gets confusing, I think, is the 2D aspect to it. So humans are very natural, we’re very good at just abstracting these 2D images, and we know that what we see on the screen represents the real thing. We’re presently trying to figure out whether dogs can do that as well, or is it just kind of low level features of the images.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet that I’ve always wondered about from Dawn. It says, how do dogs process and learn our language– India, I think is her dog, can seem to understand a conversation not directed at him.

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, this is amazing. These are great questions. So the thing about language is 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 gibberish coming from us and somehow magically know what it means.

So the question then– we’re pursuing this right now– 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 a 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.

Now it may be that 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 the ability to abstractly represent it, what we call semantics. But we’re trying to figure that out.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they know the words. You have to spell W-A-L-K instead of say it because that word in the middle of a conversation–


IRA FLATOW: Pick it up and do that. I’ll just go to Jacksonville, Florida. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hi. I was wondering what the potential was for treating the psychological traumas of dogs that are rescues of an abusive home.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, can you see that in brain? That’s a great question, because so many dogs come from rescue shelters, and they have been abused. And I know many of those dogs, and they really are hurting a lot of times.

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, that’s a great question. And so I think kind of the deep question here is, what kinds of memories do dogs have. Do they remember their past, and what kind of traces does that leave in their brain and their personalities. So these are very difficult questions to answer, even in humans, when you go looking for them in the brain.

We’re just beginning to scratch the surface. So part of the difficulty in doing this sort of thing with dogs is the dog has to be calm enough and trainable enough to go in the scanner in the first place, and not be so anxious that they would startle, and run away from the noise. If we can get them over that hurdle, if we can train them to do that, then we can begin to answer these questions.

As we’ve grown our project here in Atlanta, we’ve trained now close to 50 dogs, many of whom do come from shelters, many of them are adopted dogs. And it’s a great question. I haven’t yet looked at the differences between say, a rescue dog and a purebred dog that came straight from a breeder in kind of a very nice environment.

IRA FLATOW: Seems like a lot of work for one guy to do here. I mean, when you study basic research, you really need more than one researcher to work on, stocked more than one center.

GREGORY BERNS: There are others, groups. There’s a couple of other groups around the world that are starting to pick this up. And I’ve gone around proselytizing the benefits of doing this kind of research. The area, actually, that I’m really passionate about right now is actually the benefits for the dogs themselves.

So people don’t really think about this when we’re doing this research, but we’ve been doing this so long that the dogs are aging out of our project. Because of the short lifespan of dogs, we are picking up health problems associated with dogs like cancer. And because they’re trained to go in the MRI, we can image them so quickly that we’re in a position now to help the dog’s health, pick up cancers and other health problems before the dogs show symptoms, or at least before they tell their humans that something’s wrong.

IRA FLATOW: And who’s paying for this kind of research?

GREGORY BERNS: So the research is primarily funded by the DOD, Department of Defense, specifically the Office of Naval Research. Also, DARPA has funded this work. And of course, the follow up question is, why do they care.

IRA FLATOW: You saved me the–

GREGORY BERNS: The simple answer is that the dogs, apart from being companion animals, play important working roles in a variety of settings. From service dogs, assistance dogs, to police dogs, to military working dogs– in all these roles. And it’s critical, especially in roles where people’s lives depend on them, to understand what the dog is seeing in their world and how can we be better attuned to them doing their job, and working with humans.

IRA FLATOW: Here’s a tweet from Pamela Kenny, who says, do dogs have a good concept of time passing. When we go on vacation and put them in boarding, do three days versus seven days make a difference to them?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, great question. It’s not a question that we can really answer with brain imaging. But just common sense, 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 just kind of 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. So these are all cues that dogs pick up on.

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. Let’s go to the phones to Houston. Gabby, welcome to Science Friday.

AUDIENCE: Hi, welcome. Thank you for taking my call.

IRA FLATOW: Hi, go ahead.

AUDIENCE: This is [INAUDIBLE]. I had a question and comment. But my dog, I’ve had her for like, four years, and her name is Lexus. She’s a Rhodesian Ridgeback. I was wondering if, because you were talking about the words and if they pick up on words. My dog literally knows what side by side means, she’d give me a kiss. When I’d come into the house, she’s like, unlike any other dog I’ve ever seen, her personality is on point with mine. I could just look at her, and tell her something, and she’ll do it.

So when you were talking about treats versus [INAUDIBLE], hands down, 100%, know that she’d pick me. So I was wondering what dogs were you testing and if that has displayed [INAUDIBLE] your data. Because I raised pitbulls all my life as well, and these creatures are [INAUDIBLE] emotional creatures as well. [INAUDIBLE]

IRA FLATOW: Let me rephrase it. Thanks for calling. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. You know, it’s getting a little muddy there, the phone call was degrading. But what she wanted to know is, did dogs differ by breeds in how they perceived you and react to you?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, it’s a tough question. Because even though we’ve studied 50 dogs in Atlanta, 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 that we partnered with– actually, with Canine Companions for Independence– to study service dogs, and those dogs were all golden retrievers, and Labrador retrievers, and mixes.

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 the 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– it’s probably even greater between the breeds.

IRA FLATOW: And we have a tweet in from David, who says, I’m very sure that the dogs don’t pass the classic mirror test yet. They’re not that sight priority minded. Anyone then any scent based testing of recognition, self-recognition in dogs?

GREGORY BERNS: Yeah, that’s a great question about self-recognition. So 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. Although that’s not quite the version of the mirror test. So another study recently replicated that by seeing if dogs recognized 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. Maybe, like you just said, they’re not visually self-aware.

IRA FLATOW: So what is the one mega question that you would like the answer if you could?

GREGORY BERNS: I think the mega question comes back to the language one. And this is something that I’m deeply interested in, which is, what do dogs get out of human speech. What are they processing, how do they do it, and do they have a mental imagery in their heads that translates from words. And that’s where we’re currently working.

IRA FLATOW: And how do you do that? How do you test that out?

GREGORY BERNS: So there are several ways. Obviously, studying language in humans is complex. It’s an order of magnitude difficult in dogs. But the idea is that you teach dogs the names of things. So we’re currently working on an experiment where we’ve taught the dogs names of objects. And then you have people speak those words to the dogs while we’re scanning their brains, and see if we can tell what kind of representation that has.

Does saying the word ball or stick cause some kind of visual activity, as if they’re visually imagining it.

IRA FLATOW: Do they? Can they?

GREGORY BERNS: Can’t tell yet It’s difficult to say.

IRA FLATOW: Watch this space.


IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll have you back when we can learn some more stuff. Very interesting, Dr. Berns. Gregory Berns, Professor of Psychology at Emory University. And you can watch our latest macroscope video of Dr. Berns in his lab, and all the dogs sitting and staying in the MRI machines on our website at sciencefriday.com.

Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

GREGORY BERNS: My pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: One last thing before we go. Science Friday is hitting the road to Pittsburgh in just a few weeks, taking the stage at the Carnegie Library Music Hall Saturday May 19. We’ll have roboticists and artificial intelligence designers, chairs that build themselves. Wow. Smart clothing that senses your skin to keep you cool. Join us, tickets and info at sciencefriday.com/pittsburgh. Sciencefriday.com/pittsburgh. Pittsburgh at May 19, the Carnegie Library Music Hall. sciencefriday.com/pittsburgh.

BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. And of course, you can find us an all on social media. We’re up there all week long. So like really, every day is Science Friday. Have a great weekend. Happy Cinco de Mayo. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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