You can now know what your dog is thinking, when he gazes up at you adoringly says a new study.
Emory University researchers have developed a new methodology to scan the brains of alert dogs and explore the minds of the oldest domesticated species.
The technique uses harmless functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), the same tool that is unlocking secrets of the human brain.
"It was amazing to see the first brain images of a fully awake, unrestrained dog," said Gregory Berns, director of the Emory Center for Neuropolicy and lead researcher of the dog project.
"As far as we know, no one has been able to do this previously. We hope this opens up a whole new door for understanding canine cognition and inter-species communication. We want to understand the dog-human relationship, from the dog's perspective," he stated.
Key members of the research team include Andrew Brooks, a graduate student at the Center for Neuropolicy, and Mark Spivak, a professional dog trainer and owner of Comprehensive Pet Therapy in Atlanta.
Two dogs are involved in the first phase of the project. Callie is a two-year-old Feist, or southern squirrel-hunting dog. Berns adopted her at nine months from a shelter.
McKenzie is a three-year-old Border Collie, who was already well-trained in agility competition by her owner, Melissa Cate.
Both dogs were trained over several months to walk into an fMRI scanner and hold completely still while researchers measured their neural activity.
The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?
In the first experiment, the dogs were trained to respond to hand signals. One signal meant the dog would receive a hot dog treat, and another signal meant it would not receive one. The caudate region of the brain, associated with rewards in humans, showed activation in both dogs when they saw the signal for the treat, but not for the no-treat signal.
"These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals. And these signals may have a direct line to the dog's reward system," Berns says.
Berns is a neuroeconomist, who normally uses fMRI technology to study how the human mind works. His human brain-imaging studies have looked at everything from why teens engage in risky behavior to how adults decide to follow, or break, established rules of society.
"To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that dogs are the first domesticated species, going back at least 10,000 years, and by some estimates 30,000 years," Berns said.
"The dog's brain represents something special about how humans and animals came together. It's possible that dogs have even affected human evolution. People who took dogs into their homes and villages may have had certain advantages. As much as we made dogs, I think dogs probably made some part of us, too," he added.
The results will be published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE).