What is your dog thinking?


Dog thoughtsA story on Science Daily News says scientists are using an MRI scanner to look into the thought processes of dogs. As the article notes, “The researchers aim to decode the mental processes of dogs by recording which areas of their brains are activated by various stimuli. Ultimately, they hope to get at questions like: Do dogs have empathy? Do they know when their owners are happy or sad? How much language do they really understand?”

I don’t need an MRI scanner to figure this out: food. More food. When do we eat? Can I have some of that? What’s for dinner? Are you going to eat it ALL? Are those scraps for me? What else is for breakfast? Is that food I smell? Don’t mind my drool, I’m just starving. Hey, don’t waste it, I’ll eat it! Can you open the fridge again so I can sniff it? Say, is that bacon? Sure I’ll eat banana if you’ll just give me some. Hey, I’m hungry. Would it hurt you to give me a little? Just let me lick the plate after you’re done. I know there’s ice cream in your bowl. Can I have some? When do we eat? Is there any spare food around? When’s dinner?

“These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals,” Berns says. “And these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.”

There’s a good article with more detail about this research on Wired.com.

Dogs have terrific senses. They have the uncanny ability to hear the sound of a banana being peeled from 100 feet away. They know when a fridge door is opened, and can differentiate between the sound of the drawers which hold the flatware and which hold the can opener. They can smell toast a block away and bacon miles way.

Okay, yo be fair, my dog also has other thoughts: can we go out now? Why am I inside? Is it time for a walk? I’m bored. Let me out. I have squirrels to chase. I need to go sniff something. Get off your ass and talk me for a walk. Are you going out yet? Can I come? When are we leaving? Why are you just sitting there? Let’s get going. Walkies! Out! Go out and take me along.

But while doing a little research into dog intelligence and behaviour this morning, I came across this story on Science News titled, “Breeding Is Changing Dog Brains, Scientists Find.” This is a very bizarre but intriguing line of study:

For the first time, scientists have shown that selective breeding of domestic dogs is not only dramatically changing the way animals look but is also driving major changes in the canine brain.
“As a dog’s head or skull shape becomes flatter — more pug-like — the brain rotates forward and the smell centre of the brain drifts further down to the lowest position in the skull,” Dr Valenzuela said.
No other animal has enjoyed the level of human affection and companionship like the dog, nor undergone such a systemic and deliberate intervention in its biology through breeding, the authors note. The diversity suggests a unique level of plasticity in the canine genome.
“Canines seem to be incredibly responsive to human intervention through breeding. It’s amazing that a dog’s brain can accommodate such large differences in skull shape through these kinds of changes — it’s something that hasn’t been documented in other species,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Co-author Associate Professor Paul McGreevy from the University of Sydney noted: “We think of dogs living in a world of smell — but this finding strongly suggests that one dog’s world of smell may be very different from another’s.”

Digging deeper into the effects of breeding on canine behaviour, this story noted,

“Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions,” Dr Bennett said.

Smart dogActually I’ve known about the inheritability of traits for decades, since I first started reading about canine breeds and behaviours. But anyone who has ever worked closely with dogs knows that breeds have general characteristics.

This is why I have serious reservations around dogs bred for violence – the pit bull and its ilk, cane corso, dogo de Argentina and others. Even intense socializing may not eliminate inherited behaviour. Perhaps if we started a program of breeding these dogs with less aggressive breeds, it might make a better, more sociable dog.

But maybe not – Sophie was attacked this winter by a very aggressive dog allegedly a cross between a cane corso and a Lab (but looked 100% pit pull). So interbreeding (if that was actually true) didn’t make it a calmer, less aggressive dog. Maybe aggression is a dominant gene and cannot be easily sublimated.

In this story, titled, “Dogs’ Intelligence On Par With Two-Year-Old Human, Canine Researcher Says”, scientists found dogs can count, as well as understand words (any dog owner knows that). But they can also appear Machiavellian:

They can also understand more than 150 words and intentionally deceive other dogs and people to get treats, according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia. He spoke Saturday on the topic “How Dogs Think” at the American Psychological Association’s 117th Annual Convention.

During play, dogs are capable of deliberately trying to deceive other dogs and people in order to get rewards, said Coren. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs.”

Fascinating stuff. I want to spend an evening or two reading more about dogs and how they learn and apply their intelligence, but I think it would be better spent playing with my own dog.

One thought on “What is your dog thinking?

  1. Mark Hammond

    check out this documentary.. I watched it the other day. They talk about various things but among them are how dogs detect and respond to human signals, and they contrast raising a litter of puppies with a litter of wolves. There is also a weird place in russia where they have been breeding and trying to tame foxes for generations.. not sure I like the caged foxes but fascinating results.

    http://documentaryheaven.com/dogs-decoded/

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