How Smart Is a Dog Really? The Secrets of a Canine Mind

Odds are you don't look forward to spending time in a magnetic resonance imager--and with good reason. The clanging, coffin-like machine seems purpose-built for sensory assault. But you're not Ninja, a 3-year-old pit-bull mix, who trots into a lab at Emory University in Atlanta, catches a glimpse of the MRI in which she'll spend her morning and leaps happily onto the table.

Ninja is one of the few dogs in the world that have been trained to sit utterly still in an MRI (the little bits of hot dog she gets as rewards help) so that neuroscientist Gregory Berns can peer into her brain as it works. "What's it like to be a dog?" Berns asks, a question that is both the focus of his work and the thrust of his next book. "No one can know with certainty. But I think our dogs are experiencing things very much the way we do."

Compared with humans and their 1:50 ratio...Dogs are comparative scholars, weighing in at an impressive 1:125--a ratio that holds across all breeds of dog, from the Chihuahua to the English mastiff. All the same, a brain that makes you a genius in the animal world is not much in the human one. Berns keeps the preserved brain of an adult German shepherd in his lab, and it starkly makes that point: the brain is the size of a tangerine. "Dog brains just don't have the real estate to do the things ours do," he says. 

While the sizes of the two brains differ, the structures are strikingly similar. Over the past several years, Berns and his team have used that similarity to good effect. Much of their MRI work has focused on the part of the brain known as the striatum. Rich in dopamine, the striatum mediates reward, pleasure and expectation--three pillars of a dog's world.

Dr. Berns is a faculty member in the NS program.

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