BOOK REVIEW: Whatever is the dog thinking?

Every dog owner sometimes wonders what is going on inside their friend's hairy head. Perfectly simple, said the mother of James Thurber: they have four thoughts, one for each paw, food, food, sex, and food.

But we know, just from observing their behaviour, that it's much more complicated than that. What are they thinking when they are deliriously happy at being re-united with their boss after just a few hours' absence? Or when they show clear signs of guilt in among the ripped garbage bags?

Gregory Berns is an American neuroscientist, and a dog lover. As part of his normal research, he is a regular user of the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Over decades, medical researchers have been able to build up a sophisticated map of the human brain in action, by scanning the brains of subjects who are alive, awake, and even thinking thoughts.

But Berns wondered, could this be done with a dog? Dogs' brains have been scanned in the past, but always of dogs either dead or heavily sedated with brain activity at its minimum. The scanner is large, very noisy, and causes dizziness in many subjects. There was no way that a dog would put up with anything that scary.

Enter Callie, an energetic black-and-white mongrel from the dog pound. Callie turned out to be an MRI natural, quite fearless, and able to lie totally still for long periods of time as the scanner carried out its work.

Callie, and a border collie named McKenzie, owned by a colleague, were painstakingly trained to enter the MRI room, climb into the scanner, and rest their heads on a foam chin-rest as long as needed. Adding to the complications was the noise: an MRI can reach jackhammer intensity, nearly 100 decibels. Damage to the human ear starts at 120 decibels. Berns points out that nobody knows at what level a dog's hearing begins to suffer, but hearing loss is a well recorded problem in hunting and military working dogs who are exposed to gunfire. So the two dogs had also to be trained to wear earmuffs.

While training Callie and McKenzie, Gregory Berns recounts the parallel training of his teenage daughter Helen, who was becoming a problem student, allergic in particular to science. As Berns tersely notes, he would be a problem student too, if all he had was the prescribed text book. He is determined to make science exciting, fun, something that grabs Helen's attention. Not all parents have the opportunity to engage their daughters in a real-life first-time laboratory experiment involving the family dog.

Another secondary benefit of the Dog Project, says Berns, was that allowing dogs into the laboratory had a noticeable effect on workplace morale. Stress levels went down. People laughed more. And - being in a scientific environment - these effects were actually quantified by measuring the human body's stress hormone cortisol.

But what of the doggy brains? Berns is quite sure that the Dog Project enabled him and his team to get new understanding of how a dog brain functions, but also to gain important insights into the relationship between dogs and humans. Dogs, says Berns, have mental processes substantially similar to our own. "And if that is true, shouldn't they be afforded rights similar to humans? I suspect that society is many years away from considering that proposition."

But after reading 'How Dogs Love Us' it is hard not to consider it as a reasonable question.

'How Dogs Love Us', Gregory Berns (Scribe, 2013) is available in Cooma from Pages of Life, Sharp Street.

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