Have you ever just looked at your dog and thought, “what is going on in that brain of yours?” I’ve always assumed it is just treats and imaginary bunny rabbits in those dog brains, but as it turns out, our furry friends have a lot going on upstairs in those dog brains. As it turns out, there is actually quite a bit of research that is being directed at dogs in an attempt to figure out exactly what they think, feel, and sense.
The bond between dogs and humans has existed for over 30,000 years, which is why it is interesting to see where we actually measure up in a dog’s priorities. Thanks to some of the most advanced brain scanning techniques, we are starting to actually get a better idea of how a dog brain works. One such recent study done by animal-cognition scientists at Emory University used trained dogs to lay flat in an MRI machine to studied the dog’s neural responses to certain smells. The smells ranged from the scent of strangers and strange animals to the scent of their owners and familiar dogs or animals. What was interesting was that the MRI showed an activation in the “reward center” of the dog’s brains when they smelled their owners. This is interesting since dog’s basically navigate the world through their noses.
Another similar study was done at Eotvos Lorand University, where dog’s brains were studied based on their reactions to certain sounds. The sounds included human voices – both strange and familiar, animal sounds, dog barks, and other dog sounds like growling. What the researchers found was that dog brains and human brains work very similarly to detecting emotion in vocalizations. Happy noises, in particular, were shown to have a great impact on the dog’s brains, just like they do in humans. Neuroscientist and lead author of the study, Attila Andics, said, “It’s very interesting to understand the toolkit that helps such successful vocal communication between two species. We didn’t need neuroimaging to see that communication works [between dogs and people], but without it, we didn’t understand why it works. Now we’re really starting to.”
Andics went on to point out that dogs bond with their owners very much the same way that babies bond with parents. This is a trait that is pretty unique to dogs. Dogs are also the only non-primate animals to look humans in the eyes as a means of detecting emotion, or conveying it. Not even wolves, even when raised in captivity, do that. Normally in the animal kingdom, direct eye contact is perceived as a challenge. Andics point out that based on his findings, “bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets.”
So how accurately do you think your impressions of what’s going on in your dog’s head are? Turns out that dog’s expressions are just as easily detected by humans as ours are to them. Example: have you ever caught your dog doing something they weren’t supposed to do, and they get that guilty, sorrowful look? According to Laurie Santos, the lead researcher at Yale’s Canine Cognition Center, “”Sometimes our intuition about what’s going on inside dogs’ heads is dead-on. Like, that dogs are seeking out help from us — and that’s true based on studies — which is different from even their closest relatives, wolves.”
So the next time you are looking at your furry friend and wondering what is going on in your head, just assume the dog is wondering why you are staring at them…and that they want a treat.