Have you ever had an MRI?
The sights, sounds, and that uncomfortable feeling of lying still in a noisy chamber…
Greg Berns, a scientist at Emory, trained dogs—all future assistance dogs under a year old—to withstand the stress of an MRI machine. He then used the fMRI to map dogs’ brain activities when exposed to dog and human smells.
In Budapest, another scientist did the same thing: trained dogs to withstand 10 minutes in an MRI machine while listening to 200 different human and dog sounds.
The Emory study found that the dogs’ owners’ aroma actually sparked the “reward center” of their brains. Dogs’ brains showed that they prioritized the whiff of their people over anything or anyone else.
In the Budapest study, researchers isolated the part of the dogs’ brain that registered sounds and found that it works exactly like ours (called “the voice area”), which was only discovered in humans in the 1990s.
Other studies conducted at Yale, MIT, and Duke indicate that the emotional centers of dogs’ brains act identically to those of human toddlers.
So, why does this matter?
What does it really mean that dogs’ brains, their emotional centers, act like ours do when we see people we love? Why does it matter that they recognize happy vs sad intonations and act differently based on which they hear?
On the one hand, longtime dog owners scoff at all this research. Why spend a tremendous amount of time, money, and manpower to test something that dog owners already KNOW about the fur under their feet?
On the other hand, though, is the harsh reality of our animal culture. Even among animal lovers and dog owners, lots of people consider an “outside dog” no big deal… but no one would EVER have an “outside toddler.” Their brains process loneliness and loss and love the same way, so what’s the difference?
That right there is why animal studies matter.
A parent in Maryland letting her kid walk a mile to the park? Outrage and calls to Child Protective Service.
But outright, substantial abuse to animal? Often nothing.
Several years ago, a woman in a nearby county was reported by her neighbors for animal hoarding. There were no services in place to either help her or punish her, but 24 dogs were removed from her trailer home. She still got to keep more—around 6, though her neighbors said when she found out that an animal welfare organization was coming, she started ferrying dogs to a friend’s house. The plywood floors in her trailer were so urine-soaked that they squished underfoot.
I helped with those dogs. Their nails were so long, they curled under. They had rotten teeth and ear infections and fleas.
All but one of the dogs were able to be placed in shelters to await their fate.
Not one thing happened to her because there weren’t really enough resources to do much of anything and… after all… they’re just dogs.
That is why animal behavior studies matter.
If we can get proof—hard data—to show the depth and intelligence and emotional capacities of dogs, then maybe… just maybe… the justice system can catch up, can use that data to actually prosecute in a meaningful way.
There’s more—so much more—about this topic… about how animal abusers usually use animals as their gateway victims before turning to human victims, so stiffer animal abuse punishments might actually prevent human abuse down the line…
About how researchers have redefined the timeline of human evolution based on a redefined timeline of canine evolution…
About how—if it weren’t for dogs becoming our hunting partners and dwelling protectors—we’d probably have evolved quite differently…
Animal behavior research matters.
If you think so, too, you can always enroll your dog in one of the many ongoing studies—just google “citizen science and dogs” to find possibilities. I recently completed this course (it’s free and fascinating)!
Or, if nothing else, give your dog a hug and a good, long walk. Science has proven that he loves you for it.