Ask any dog-owner and they will swear that they love their dogs and he or she loves them back, now it can be proven. Some super-smart dogs were specially trained to withstand the noise and strangeness of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine without any sedation. This way, clear scans of the dogs brains were obtained and available for study. Before this, assumptions about dogs thinking patterns had to be inferred from the way that they behaved. More than a dozen dogs were used in the unique research. True love and affection seem to be strongly indicated. This is no surprise to dog-lovers but it is a breakthrough for science.
Gregory Berns, from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, reasoned that if dogs could be trained to jump out of helicopters or to help the disabled to dress and care for themselves, surely they could learn to lie still in an MRI scanner. He is the Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics and a specialist in decision-making, but first and foremost, he is a dog lover. He sought to come up with hard data to certify the unique bond between humans and their “best friends” was real, not imagined. His first canine candidates were Callie, a rescue dog who was nine months old, and McKenzie, a collie, aged 3. They both co-operated beautifully.
Berns employed the classic use of hand signals to indicate to the dogs when they would be receiving a food reward. By doing so, he and his assistants were soon able to see that he caudate nucleus, the area of the brain that is most associated with positive emotion, was stimulated. This is the same area that will respond to good and happy feelings for both dogs and humans.
Having established the basis for the brain reaction, Berns now wants to go on to prove that the food reward is not the only stimulus. By offering treats from both strangers and from machines, he and his team aim to show that the reaction will differ depending on who or what is proffering the food. If it were only about obtaining the nourishment, there would be no change at all in the response. He and his team intend to go on to show that the love dogs demonstrate for owners goes beyond the basics and extends to “the same things that humans love us for” such as the comforts and bonds of social interaction.
His first findings have already been published in How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. In this book he has argued that dogs have friendships akin to human ones and that they are capable of empathy and understanding.
Experiencing positive emotions, like love and attachment, gives dogs a level of sentience akin to that of a human child. However this does not quite irrevocably prove that dogs do love us back, it proves, at this stage, that the same triggers that activate the human caudate, activate the dog caudate. The hormone that goes into overdrive when we fall in love, dopamine, is rich in the caudate nucleus, and dopamine receptors respond to pleasurable things like love, food, comfort, even money, music, and beauty. All the good things in life.
Appropriately, it was a small dog, his pug, Newton, that led Berns to his quest. Newton and Berns were best buddies but, being a scientist, Berns wanted to be able to prove that Newton’s enthusiastic tail wagging and doggy kisses came from real emotion, not just from “cupboard love.” Curiously, although mankind and animals have always lived side by side, and in many cases, in great closeness, very little is really known about domestic pets and their interactions with us. Animals in the wild and in laboratories have been the subject of much closer scrutiny. Now the relatively new field of anthrozoology seeks to change that.
Our dogs, and most likely, all other animals, have emotions just like our own, and in that regard, Gregory Berns says, we should never treat them as “property.” Thinking that your dog really truly loves you is not a ridiculous idea. They may call it puppy love, and for good reason.
By Kate Henderson