Looking Inside The Brains Of Dogs: The Work of Dr. Gregory Berns

Discoveries from the growing field of canine neuroscience

By Patrick Cullen

Dr. Gregory Berns’ of Emory University latest project in canine neuroscience was inspired by the US Navy Seal raid that killed Osama Bin Laden in 2011. The military members who were helicoptered in that night were joined by a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. Upon hearing about Cairo’s participation in the raid, Berns was amazed by the military’s ability to train a dog to tolerate the noisy, chaotic helicopter ride and ensuing raid. His work in canine neuroscience had been limited by the difficulty he and other researchers had getting an un-sedated dog to tolerate an fMRI, a newer version of the MRI, and the same machine that revolutionized scientists’ study of the human brain. But now, upon hearing about Cairo, Berns was inspired.

Photo: Navy Seals

It took Berns and a dog trainer he brought in three months of daily training with an fMRI simulator before his family’s terrier would tolerate entering and remaining in the noisy machine long enough for Berns to collect the data he needed. After that, they asked for owners to volunteer their dogs for the same training and eventually real thing. Since 2012, Berns has conducted research on 90 dogs that were never sedated or restrained inside the fMRI machine. From these 90 dogs and the tests Berns ran, he’s made a number of interesting, applicable discoveries that are brand new to the growing field of canine neuroscience.

Berns ran a number of studies that were parallel to fMRI studies that are run on humans. Of the tests conducted by Berns, two are of particular interest to dog owners and vital in answering longstanding questions that I think we all have had from time to time. In the first test, Berns gave the dogs hot dogs or praise and looked at the reward center of their brains to monitor activity. Thankfully for dog owners, most of the dogs responded equally to praise and food, meaning your dog really likes you for you and not only the food that they’re so desperate for at 5:00. 20% of the dogs even responded to praise more than food which is awesome news for owners everywhere who needed any creeping self-doubt put to rest.

Another especially relevant study involved showing pictures of objects and human faces to the dogs in the machine. In doing so Berns learned that dogs have a particular area of the brain that exists strictly for processing human faces. They’re actually born with this, it’s not something they learn from spending a lot of time with us. For me, this was great news because most of my last four years were spent a thousand plus miles from my dogs which meant a lot of FaceTime with them thanks to my parents. I swear sometimes they’d see me on the screen and perk up and now, Dr. Gregory Berns has confirmed that!

Photo: Dr. Gregory Berns

The best part of these studies are the applications. In addition to learning interesting facts such as those above, we can use Berns’ findings to better our lives and the lives of dogs everywhere. One application that’s already being put in motion is using fMRI to select the best candidates for service dogs, who after strenuous training, go on to do so much good for their handler. fMRI can be used to see which dogs are most up for the tasks that will eventually be asked of them as service dogs, and these tests can be run when the dogs are still puppies which means no wasted time and resources on dogs that might not eventually make it as service dogs.

A final application of Berns’ work is the ability to look inside the brains of dogs to understand what might be causing specific behaviors. This is huge in our interactions with aggressive dogs. Berns believe that if we can come to understand what’s going on that’s making a dog act aggressively, researchers and trainers can eventually come up with solutions to aggressiveness in dogs, or at least alternatives to euthanasia. If this kind of scientific problem solving can materialize, the lives of so many dogs would be spared which is obviously a huge plus.

Berns’ work, in his own words, can be found in his new book “What It’s Like to Be a Dog”, which is available on Amazon.