Puppy Brains Scanned For Insight Into Human-Dog Relationships

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Do you know what your dog is thinking? Emory University researchers aim to find out. (Photo: FLICKR/Katie@!)

If you've ever owned a dog, you've probably been through a few moments -- the time it chewed up your shoes or chased its own tail -- where you thought, What the heck was that dog thinking?

Thanks to researchers from Emory University, you may soon know more about what your dog is thinking. The research team, who published their findings in PLoS One, attempted to learn more about human-dog relationships from the perspective of a canine.

The team taught dogs to sit still in an fMRI machine to get images of the dogs' brains. When we saw those first [brain] images, it was unlike anything else, said researcher Gregory Berns in a video about the study. Nobody, as far as I know, had ever captured images of a dog's brain that wasn't sedated. This was [a] fully awake, unrestrained dog, and here we have a picture for the first time ever of her brain.

The dogs in the experiment were trained to respond to two specific hand signals. Dogs were conditioned to know that the left hand pointing down meant that it would be given a treat. When both hands pointed horizontally toward each other, it meant that they weren't receiving a treat. Berns explains in the video that he built a model simulator in his house and that he trained to dog to hop up in the mock simulator when he asked it, Do you want to do some training?

In the video, Berns paints himself as a dog lover rather than a cat lover. To the skeptics out there, and the cat people, I would say that looking at the dog-human relationship is unique, he says. There are no other animals like dogs. They are the first domesticated species, and as such, [the study] really is like anthropology. It's almost like we're looking at fossils because the dog's brain represents something very special about humans and animals and how they came together thousands of years ago.

The results of the experiment proved that dogs pay very close attention to human hand signals. The research team believes that human hand signals may be able to directly influence the dog's neurological reward system. For more on the experiment, watch the research team's latest YouTube video below:

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