Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted Callie, a hyperactive Terrier mix, he naturally started to wonder what she might be thinking. This led him to consider how he might apply techniques used in his studies of the human brain to dogs. In the fascinating book How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team employed, and how their pet dogs made these groundbreaking studies possible.
Training the dogs to maintain a sharp and steady focus as well as enjoy themselves while undergoing this testing was key. An MRI machine requires the subject to remain perfectly still in a tightly enclosed space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds. Luckily, Berns found the perfect training partner in Mark Spivak, who was confident that positive reinforcement and clicker training could shape the dogs’ behavior so that they would freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. As it turned out, Spivak was right. Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and, by extension, that the idea that you must be your dog’s pack leader is a mistake. As Berns notes, “Callie was a sentient being who understood, at some level, what I was thinking and reciprocated by communicating her thoughts within her behavioral repertoire.”
There’s much to learn in this engrossing read.
This article first appeared in The Bark,