Learning from Dogs

Dogs are integrous animals. We have much to learn from them.

Welcome Doctor Barkman!

with 5 comments

A delightful contribution from a guest author.

Dear readers, from time to time I am approached by other authors who have flattered me by asking if I would like to publish their Blog posts from time to time.  So I have been doubly flattered by having two authors contact me in the last week.

So to the first.  It is with great pleasure that I welcome Jane Brackman, Ph.D., author of the blog Doctor Barkman Speaks who will, from time to time, republish her posts on Learning from Dogs. I have no doubt that you will enjoy her scientific expertise regarding dogs

So today, please enjoy …

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HOW DOGS THINK – NEW SCIENCE LOOKS INSIDE THEIR MINDS WITH MRI IMAGING

Canine illustrator Robert Dickey assigned thoughts and feeling to his Boston Terrier based on the dogs’s expressions. Here he illustrates contentment, sympathy and misery.  (Dogs from Life, Page & Co., 1920)
**
Are you gonna eat that? Are you gonna eat that?  I’ll eat it.”
Is this what dogs think?  Or do they experience more complex thoughts?  Apparently science is getting pretty close to figuring it out. If not exactly WHAT they’re thinking, then where in the brain the thoughts are coming from.  Since brains are pretty much the same across mammal species, if researchers identify which parts of the the brain light up, based on what humans have said, they can guess what the dogs’ thoughts are, too.

A couple of smart guys, Gregory Berns and Andrew Brooks of Emory University, watching a military dog assist Navy Seals as they overran the Osama Bin Laden compound, got a brilliant idea.  If you can teach dogs to jump out of helicopters, surely dogs could be trained to enjoy themselves inside an fMRI machine while scientists calculate what the dogs are thinking by scanning their brains.

The researchers, who are dog-lovers, explained, “We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog’s perspective.  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.

So they recruited a professional dog trainer, Mark Spivak, and two companion dogs, a Feist Terrier named Callie and a Border Collie named McKenzie.  The team said that both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their brain activity.

In the photo below Callie wears ear protection as she 
prepares to enter the scanner.  The research team 
includes, from left, Andrew Brooks, Gregory Berns and Mark Spivak.  
(Credit: Photo by Bryan Meltz)

This is what the researchers wrote in the journal article that was published in PLOS last week:

Because of dogs’ prolonged evolution with humans, many of the canine cognitive skills are thought to represent a selection of traits that make dogs particularly sensitive to human cues. But how does the dog mind actually work? To develop a methodology to answer this question, we trained two dogs to remain motionless for the duration required to collect quality fMRI images by using positive reinforcement without sedation or physical restraints. The task was designed to determine which brain circuits differentially respond to human hand signals denoting the presence or absence of a food reward.

Eventually they hope to answer the more profound questions we all ask:  Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when we are happy or sad?  How much language do they really understand?”  (And here’s one from me- When they pee on the carpet and we don’t find it until the next day, when we scold them do they know why we are scolding them?)

Do dogs feel guilt?
You can read a brief summary of the project here:  What is Your Dog Thinking? Brain Scans Unleash Canine Secrets.

Or read the entire scholarly article here:

Berns, Gregory, Brooks, Andrew and Spivak, Mark, Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs (April 27, 2012). 

Jane Brackman, Ph. D.

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Well, I don’t know about you but I found this a most fascinating article.  All of us who live around dogs, both physically and emotionally, sense the closeness, may I use the word ‘magic’, of the relationships.

Take a look at the photograph below.  Until I left the UK in 2008, a few of us owned a lovely old Piper Super Cub.  It was a joy to fly.  I used frequently to take Pharaoh to the grass airfield, Watchford Farm, up on the Devon moors.  One day he showed such interest in the aircraft that I lifted him up to the passenger’s seat, strapped him in and taxied all over the grass airfield.  This picture shows something that is difficult to explain otherwise – Pharaoh’s real joy at sharing the adventure.  Of course, I didn’t fly with him, that would have been a step too far, but we did taxi almost up to take-off speed.  Dr. Barkman, what do you make of that?

Watchford Farm, Devon, July 2006.


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5 Responses

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  1. How and what a German Shepherd feels or thinks cannot be generalized to other dogs, because, as anyone who has ever lived a with a Shepherd knows, they see the world in a different way. For many years I worked at a guide dog school (not as a trainer, but as an administrator). People would ask the instructors, “How are Labs, Golden Retrievers and Shepherds different?” The instructors said, “The Labs love to come to work every day. Whatever you ask them to do, they will do it with joy in their hearts. The Goldens will do whatever is asked as long as it’s fun because life must always be a parade. The Shepherds comes to work and no matter what is asked, they will let you know they have a better idea. And more often than not, it is!”

    Jane Brackman

    May 21, 2012 at 10:39

    • Jane, that’s a lovely anecdote. Despite being born a Londoner, much of the last 15 years before I left England was spent living in the county of Devon, in a backwater of that ancient county mid-way between Exeter and Plymouth. Many of the old guys born in the area where I used to live (Harberton, close to Totnes) still spoke with that rich Devonian accent and there was one particular old guy in the local pub, The Church House Inn, who used to rattle off in that rich accent the following saying: “All the world’s a little queer [as in strange] except thee and me, and I ha’ me doubts about thee!

      This came to mind in response to you writing that German Shepherds often view the human world around them in similar terms! Paul

      Paul Handover

      May 21, 2012 at 15:55

  2. Great pic of Pharaoh and you in the plane. My 2 GSD’s are jealous; I’m not sure what the Min Pin thinks.
    Grace and Peace.

    Dean Frazeur

    May 22, 2012 at 04:33

    • Thanks Dean, Yes, that was a very magical time with both man and dog playing around! Best wishes to you and all the troop at your end, Paul

      Paul Handover

      May 22, 2012 at 08:25

  3. Mike, I was so happy and relieved to learn that you trained the dogs for the MRI. Great work. But us us dogs people always knew they are like us just better.

    Melody Mozart

    October 7, 2013 at 14:21


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