The death of his beloved pooch Newton left neuroscientist Dr Berns wondering if his dog had truly loved him or just the food he provided.
To uncover the mystery, he spent days training his new dog to lay still in an MRI machine and studied its brain activity to learn more about how they think and feel, and the nature of the human-canine bond.
Dr Berns has gone on to train dozens more dogs to lay in the MRI scanner and is the first neuroscientist to study our canine friends. Here’s what he found:
Read on to learn about:
- Do dogs feel love?
- Do dogs recognise their owners’ faces?
- Can dogs smell their owners?
- How similar are dogs to humans?
Do dogs feel love?
Does your dog love you for you or because you’re the human who feeds and walks it? That’s the question that Dr Berns set out to answer in 2012.
He monitored the neural activity of over 90 dogs in order to determine what they valued more – food or praise.
The results? His MRI dogs enjoyed being praised by their owners at least as much as they enjoyed food and 20% of the dogs preferred praise to food.
But this wasn’t the only finding that led him to believe that our canine friends love us. The way the dogs he studied responded to visual stimuli and smells was also of value to the experiment.
Do dogs recognise their owners’ faces?
It’s been long known that dogs and their owners communicate widely through eye contact, but with all the sharpened senses at their disposal, how do we know they can recognise us by sight rather than by their innate sensitivity to familiar scents and sounds?
In a study conducted at the University of Padua, Italy, scientists found that dogs can spot their owners even if they were surrounded by a crowd of people, purely by recognising their faces.
And that’s not all! Another study, done at the University of Helsinki, Finland, led to the conclusion that dogs get more animated at the sight of familiar faces than at the sight of faces they've never seen before.
According to Dr Brens, who showed pictures to the dogs in his MRI scan, pooches have brain centres dedicated to ‘processing faces’, suggesting that dogs are hardwired to observe their human companion’s faces.
Can dogs smell their owners?
Not only can your dog tell you apart from other people based on your scent, but its brain undergoes the same neuronal excitement that your brain does when you smell the familiar scent of a loved one.
To determine how dogs respond to familiar smells, Dr Berns introduced five different scents to 12 dogs and used functional MRI to monitor their responses.
The five scents were the dog’s own scent, that of a strange dog, a dog that lived in the same house, a human the dog had never met and a human the dog was living with.
All five scents activated the part of the dog’s brain responsible for processing smells, but the familiar ones triggered heightened activity.
Even better, the scent of their familiar humans activated the reward-response area in their brains. These results suggested that dogs have a positive emotional reaction to their owners’ smell.
How similar are dogs to humans?
The fact that dogs' brain structures and responses to stimuli are very close to ours suggests a great many similarities between our canine friends and us. For example, dogs and humans use the same neural pathways to delay gratification, according to Dr Berns.
The team believes this suggests that on a neurobiological level, dogs and humans are similar.
Another curious find was that just like humans, dogs exhibited different types of personalities; they are individuals, too.
So wonder no more! Next time your pooch rushes to greet you at the door, know that, even though he might be motivated by the possibility of being walked and fed, he’s also very happy because his favourite human has come home.