Let me start by saying I almost never review books about animals. Everyone who has ever written one has an opinion and, normally, its just that — his or her opinion. And there are as many of those as there are people.
Today’s column is no different, even though it is about a book about dogs.
Last week, I received Dr. Gregory Berns’ book “How Dogs Love Us, A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain,” and I couldn’t wait to have a few minutes to sit down with a good read. What I discovered was so much more. Although it was filled with unfamiliar scientific terms, it was also surprisingly easy to read.
Every book ever written about what dogs are thinking is what someone thinks dogs are thinking.
This was something completely different.
Berns took a premise all dog lovers have always known and proved it through the science of brain mapping.
Over two years, Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, taught his dog, Callie, a shelter-rescued rat terrier, to enthusiastically walk into a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine and sit, sphinx-like and without moving, until scientists could get thousands of images of her brain in order to map it.
McKenzie, a team member’s border collie and an agility champion, was also in the first round of tests to find out how dogs relate to their humans.
At first, the pair worked for hot dogs and peas. But as research continued, Berns realized something else was afoot.
To start with, both dogs were chosen because each had the demeanor and the drive to learn to sit inside a tube while testing required them to do so in a calm state so the test would record activity in an awake, unstressed brain.
Berns’ quest began after losing his 14-year-old pug, Newton. After a long period of mourning, he began wondering if Newton felt the same attachment to him.
“Do dogs have some concept of humans as something more than food dispensers? Simply knowing that human feelings toward dogs are reciprocated in some way, even if only partially, changes everything. It would mean that dog-human relationships belong on the same plane as human-human relationships,” Berns writes.
Just thinking about the logistics of accomplishing the training necessary to do the study is mind-boggling to anyone who has ever trained an animal. Most people hate MRIs. How do you make a dog amenable to the test?
The project started with the premise that the dogs would be treated as if they were human children. If it was too stressful or painful in any way, the testing would be stopped immediately. Participants were never forced. Everything they did was voluntary.
Berns was accustomed to studying human brains, but this would be something very different. He and his team wanted to compare dogs’ brains with those of humans. Employing a technique used on humans for the past 20 years, the team used functional MRI, or fMRI, to study active neurons in the animal’s brain.
Wolf theory discounted
Berns discounts the theory that we can rely on wolf behavior to interpret dog behavior. While they share a common ancestor, it doesn’t mean dogs are descended from wolves. This is an important distinction.
“The evolutionary trajectories of wolves and dogs diverged when some of the ‘wolf-dogs’ started hanging out with proto-humans (hypothetical primitive ancestors of modern humans). Those that stuck around became dogs and those that stayed away became modern wolves,” he writes.
This means wolves behave differently from dogs and have very different social structures. Wolf analogies have led to the flawed training strategies based on the idea that the human must be a “pack leader,” according to Bern.
The team was able to deduce through the study that although a dog can’t talk, his social interaction with his humans is remarkably advanced. It is humans who are not paying attention. In a dog’s eyes, we are his partners, not his leader.
The journey Berns and his team embarked on, and are continuing, is as remarkable as the study’s conclusions to date.
Suffice to say, Berns proves what most pet lovers have always known. Our dogs are much like us. They are sentient beings. Quite simply, they think about what we are thinking.
It is the journey it took to get there that is so fascinating.
“How Dogs Love Us” from New Harvest will be available Oct. 22. Diminishing discounts on the $25 retail price are available on pre-ordered copies at Amazon.com for hardback and Kindle editions.