Pets don’t come with instruction manuals but owners don’t need one to decode their furry friends’ emotions. As I tiptoe down the stairs at 6 in the morning and I nestle on the sofa between my dogs, I know that Ottie’s tongue showering my face is a sign of affection and Portia’s head in my lap signifies comfort and trust.
Any one of us who has lived for a significant amount of time with either dogs or cats (and probably bunnies, pigs and birds) knows that animals have feelings: love, anger, confusion, jealousy, gratefulness, happiness, sadness, fear. It’s not a case of anthropomorphization – otherwise known as being bamboozled by too much love for our pets: those feelings are real.
Still, there are those who set out to prove it, namely Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who, after losing his pug, wondered if Newton had really loved him or if their relationship was just one of convenience, dictated by the dog’s needs for food and shelter.
After reading that the mission that killed Bin Laden included a dog, Dr. Berns realized that it’s possible to train a dog to be inure to loud noises. If Cairo could stand being in a helicopter, maybe other dogs could be trained to enter an MRI. Once he began advertising the study, there was no shortage of volunteers.
Working with a trainer, and building a simulated MRI in his basement, in three months they had the first dog trained and a methodology in place: dogs learnt to climb the stairs into the MRI and to lie still for a considerable amount of tie.
What did the scans reveal? That dogs use the same part of the prefrontal lobe as humans do when solving simple tasks (go – sit – stay etc). Experimenting with praise and food, of the 90 dogs tested, 20% showed stronger feelings towards praise than towards food, hypothesizing that, at least, they love us as much as they love food.
What I found most interesting is that, by showing dogs pictures of objects and faces, it is clear that dogs have a function that allows them to process faces – a dedicated part of the brain – meaning that recognizing faces is not an acquired skill but a trait they are born with.
Dr. Berns, who has scanned the brains of other animals too, is now convinced that animals are aware of their suffering and, this alone, should lead us to reconsider how we treat farm animals (he has been a vegetarian since college).
But even if you are not ready to ditch your meat yet, you can rest assured that your dog would pick your face – and not just your scent – within a crowd and will come knocking on your door for more than just a bowl of chow.
If you want to know more, Dr. Gregory Berns has written a book: What it’s like to be a dog.