Monday, October 7, 2013

Neuroscientist explores how dogs love us

“The heart of my interest is the dog-human relationship,” says Emory neuroeconomist Gregory Berns, director of the university's Center for Neuropolicy. His latest research involves training dogs to enter a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) and hold perfectly still, so that he can scan their brain activity.

Berns' research began with his own pet, Callie, adopted from an animal shelter, and has expanded to include a dozen “MRI-certified” canines. Only positive training methods are used on the dogs. They remain awake and unrestrained in the fMRI as they respond to stimuli like hand signals indicating food and smells of familiar humans.

The results Berns has gathered so far are the subject of his new book, “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

“The idea behind the book is essentially my deep-seated desire to know what my dogs are thinking, and whether they love us for something more than food,” Berns says. “I think the answer is definitely, yes. They love us for things far beyond food, basically the same things that humans love us for. Things like social comfort and social bonds.”

What is your dog thinking?


  1. This is a superb example of excellent neuroscience research which does not involve vivisection or forceful confinement. It shows what one can do if one puts in the time to treat one's research subjects as autonomous beings.

    1. Here, here. Well said. My own experience with dogs agrees.

    2. Love is not a concept exclusive to humans. So yes dogs do love us in a most spectacular way. Horses do as well and so many creatures are capable of astounding depth in relationships. Westerners try to explain holistic concepts by studying one specific component. The brain is not the epicenter of love. It is the epicenter of intellect. This is a fun article that addresses a highly complex emotional spectrum with diagnostic imaging.

  2. Mapping neural activity regarding responses to known stimuli doesn't lead to an understanding of "love" in a categorical human sense. That's my problem with this research -- just more anthropomorphism. The way dogs' brains have evolved to develop bonds with us is worth understanding. But we can not and should not superimpose onto a dog our emotional biases of what "love" means. Working with dogs for many years, I have learned that their needs are not as much about "love" as we understand it and show it but about respect, stability and leadership in canine terms, which to a dog are actual and useful demonstrations of love.

  3. Intuitively it seems my dog has feelings outside of me being the food provider. My dog will leave a treat or even a full dish of food if I offer the alternative of coming with me for a walk or car ride.

  4. The love of a dog challenges the gossamer fidelity of mere human relationships.

  5. This looks like a good companion book to "Inside of a Dog" by Alexandra Horowitz (a cognitive scientist). She studied her own dog along with others to suss out how they think, why they act etc.

  6. No dog has ever hurt me.
    Wish I could say the same about people.
    I don't know if they love me but I do know I love them.

  7. No dog has ever hurt me; wish I could say the same about people.
    I don't know if dogs love me but I know I love them.

    - greg