Gregory Berns on What Your Dog Is Thinking

Four Things to Know about How Your Dog Thinks

Illustration by Laura Coyle

Nearly half of American households are home to at least one dog—evidence that a good many of us understand instinctively the rewards of canine companionship. Studies have found that dog owners are happier and more physically fit than those without dogs.

But much about the scientific reasons for the human-canine bond, and specifically how a dog’s brain functions, has long been a mystery. Last year, Gregory Berns, Distinguished Professor of Economics and director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, led a landmark effort to change that by capturing the first-ever brain images of alert, unrestrained dogs who had been trained to comfortably enter an fMRI machine.

Gregory Berns

Emory Photo/Video

In what came to be called the Dog Project, the harmless fMRI scans shed new light on how dogs respond to people by recording which regions of the brain were activated in reaction to various stimuli. In his book about the Dog Project, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, Berns considers the implications of the study and what it might mean for dog lovers and the four-legged friends who, it now appears, really do love them back.

1. Rex is watching you

The Dog Project indicates that pet dogs are exquisitely attuned to their owners—not just our actions, but also our state of mind. They use all their senses (particularly their noses, which are one hundred thousand times more powerful than ours) to continually monitor, interpret, and anticipate everything we do. “The most important thing we learned was that dogs’ brains show evidence of a theory of mind for humans,” Berns writes. “This means that they not only pay attention to what we do but to what we think, and they change their behavior based on what they think we’re thinking.”

2. Fido craves clear communication

If your dog seems aloof or bored in your company, it’s probably because she can’t understand a word you’re saying. “Humans are sloppy creatures,” Berns says. “Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, we are oblivious to our body language. We bump into objects. We accidentally step on our dogs’ tails. We emit a constant stream of sounds with frequently inconsistent meanings. It is a wonder that dogs can pull anything consistent out of this barrage of signals. And yet they do.”

3. Spot can empathize

The Emory researchers found that dogs have an astonishing degree of interspecies social intelligence, easily interacting and forming bonds with other species—cats, farm animals, and yes, people. Nonhuman primates, who also have been shown to have high social cognition, don’t socialize with other species nearly as readily. “Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they probably also have a high capacity for empathy,” Berns says. “More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel. Just like people, if dogs can be happy, then surely they can be sad and lonely.”

4. Muffy may find the “pack leader” routine overrated

According to Berns’s findings, dogs are so sensitive to human signals that they don’t need a heavy hand—literally or figuratively—to tell them what to do. “While it is easy to confuse being a pack leader with being dominant, that is a mistake that has harmed more dogs than any other piece of advice,” Berns writes. “The better analogy for being a pack leader comes from management literature. While there are different styles of leadership, the most important characteristics of a great leader are clarity and consistency.”

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