What Are Dogs Thinking? Inquiring Minds at Emory University Want to Know

While you may have a pretty good idea of what your canine companion is contemplating, scientists took it one step further by training dogs to sit still in MRIs.


This is your dog’s brain. This is your dog’s brain on an fMRI scan.

When we peer into those big brown eyes, we think we know what thoughts lie behind them. Sure, we can tell when our dogs are happy, when our dogs are sad, and when our dogs are scared, but how can we ever know what they are really thinking?

Researchers at Emory University — the same school where kids are invited to play with dogs during finals to help reduce stress — decided to collect and compare images of dogs’ brains in an effort to uncover canine cognition.

Gregory Berns, the lead researcher and director of the Emory University Center for Neuropolicy, got the idea to work with dogs after learning about the dog who was part of the Navy SEAL team who went in after Osama bin Laden. He figured that if a dog can be trained to leap out of a helicopter, then a dog can be trained to undergo an fMRI.

The study is in its early stages, but by recording which areas of the brain are activated by different stimuli, researchers are hoping to answer whether dogs are capable of empathy, whether they can discern emotions in their human companions, and how much language they actually comprehend. So far the initial research dogs, Callie and McKenzie, have shown that dogs — unlike any other animal — pay extremely close attention to humans.

Callie and McKenzie are making incredible contributions to science with their safety and comfort in mind. Berns said, “From the outset, we wanted to ensure the safety and comfort of the dogs. We wanted them to be unrestrained and go into the scanner willingly.” The dogs have been trained to lie perfectly still in the brain-scanning machines with their heads supported by a chin rest and their hearing protected by ear muffs.

The first results have been published in the Public Library of Science, and with continued research, Berns hopes to further decipher the minds of dogs.

Story and photos via Emory University eScienceCommons

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