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Dogs on the Brain

Posted March 13, 2017 10:00 AM by MaggieMc

My good friend just adopted a puppy, and with all the pictures coming my way, I have dogs on the brain. Evidently, so do researchers. Two studies were recently recounted on ScienceDaily about the brains and behaviors of our canine friends.

Christy L. Hoffman, the lead of the first study, noted that “when dogs are waiting for adoption at a shelter, a common question is ‘what is the dog like with cats[?]’”—unfortunately, there is not standardized assessment to determine the answer to that question, so that’s what Hoffman set out to do.

As pointed out in the ScienceDaily article, there are standardized assessments to assess dogs’ behaviors around humans and other dogs. One such test, Sue Sternberg’s Assess-a-Pet test is said to be quite commonly used in shelters. While the benefits of such tests are debated, Hoffman sought to add another realm to the evaluations.

The research team examined the responses of 69 pet dogs to different stimuli: a realistic cat doll, recordings of cat sounds, and the smell of cat urine. Researchers predicted that the dogs would react most strongly to the cat doll, but it actually showed little correlation to a dog’s known history with cats. The same was found for cat urine. Only the dogs’ reaction to cat sounds showed a relationship to their previously recorded behavior. As I’ve watched my cat react to the sound of another cat’s meow played from my google home (hilarious by the way), it doesn’t surprise me that it sparked a reaction in dogs.

Researchers say the results suggest that “dogs are relying more heavily” on hearing, and that it was “surprising since most behavioral assessments focus on dogs’ responses to visual stimuli”—perhaps suggesting a flaw in traditional evaluations of behavior.

The second study takes predicting behavior even further as the Emory University researchers sought to hone in on which dogs would be successful in a rigorous service training program. The researchers utilized data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to evaluate brain scans of “canine candidates to assist people with disabilities.”

These dogs had already undergone “a battery” of traditional behavior tests when they went for their brain scans, in addition to having been taught to remain still while undergoing the fMRI. Gregory Berns, who led the research, explained “the brain scans may be like taking a dog’s mental temperature.”

The researchers found heightened neural activity in the amygdala of some dogs, which was considered “an abnormal value for a successful service dog.” This test allowed the researchers to boost “the ability to identify dogs that would ultimately fail to 67 percent, up from about 477 percent without the use of fMRI.”

Researchers also found dogs that demonstrated strong activity in the caudate region of the brain, when responding to a signal they associated with receiving a treat, were slightly more likely to pass the dog training program. Activity in the amygdala correlated to a failure in this test as well.

Berns says they chose those regions of the brain because those two regions seem to distinguish between motivation and nervousness—important since “the ideal service dog is one that is highly motivated, but also doesn’t get excessively excited or nervous.”

With the long waiting lists for service dogs, 70% of animals currently failing out of the program, and the cost of training ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, Berns’ study provides a degree of hope—even if fMRI scans would only be practical for larger dog training organizations.

Perhaps your next dog will have proven herself behaviorally superior—or not, in the case of adopting a failed service dog. In any case, it looks like all dog lovers will now have a bit more insight into the brains of man’s best friend.

Image credit: Gregory Berns, Emory University (via ScienceDaily)

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#1

Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/13/2017 11:15 AM

A dog's view of the world is mainly olfactory just as a human's view is primarily vision (hence, the word "view"). If the cat doll didn't smell like a cat to the dogs, I doubt they would even associate it with a cat. I suspect that, to a dog's sensitive sense of smell, only a real cat would smell like a cat.

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#2
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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/13/2017 1:22 PM

OK, but what if the cat could be made to smell like bacon? Peanut butter?

I know for a fact that dogs that are used to particular cat being present will love on them, and even play with them, but put in a new cat, and it is chase time.

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/14/2017 8:08 AM

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/14/2017 9:03 AM

Just like you to revel in the presentation of a level 4 disaster in the cubicle farm!

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/13/2017 1:53 PM

" a realistic cat doll"

How realistic? If it didn't run streaking across the dogs path, but was (relatively) stationary, the dog probably would pay any attention. It is when their 'prey' is moving that they can see it more clearly, and the 'chase' instinct kicks into high gear.

All the cats I have had around dogs (2 cats - 9 dogs) know that instinctively. Watch a cat (especially a bold one used to dogs) when a new dog enters the scene, the cat will move relatively slowly around that new dog. Once they are comfortable, they will move more freely.

I just went through this with our cat of 2 years (boldest damn cat I have ever seen), with an 8 year old Coonhound that I just adopted 2 months ago. The cat came up to the dog slowly, and sniffed noses - no problem. After being around for a month the cat started doing her 'spring training' for chasing prey while in the house. Then the Coonhound reacted - got beat for it too! A month later, the cat can come streaking in the living room, attack a piece of fuzz, jump straight up, turn around and go streaking back out - the Coonhound barely even notices.

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/13/2017 2:06 PM

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#5
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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/14/2017 8:07 AM

haha, nice.

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#8

Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/15/2017 3:07 PM

I find that its always best to have the cats first.

Then bring a puuppy into the house.

The cats "train" the puppy.

My dog(s) have "protected" their cats from other dogs.....

I have always had hunting dogs, that is gun dogs. Which do not have a killer instinct, they only retrieve the bodies of shot animals....

Now if you had a true "hunting dog", the whole story would be 180° diferent usually....

Sen it and experienced it many times.....

Weimaraners are totally brilliant in all phases.....you have to have had a few, to understand that statement!!

If you have'nt, don't even bother posting, you are wasting your breath!!

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/16/2017 9:10 AM

I have not had, but I lust after yours. I confess to coveting that which my neighbor (in Germany) has, all the way from Texas.

It is very true also about the kitties training the dogs.

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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/15/2017 8:42 PM

Rixter says that a dog is olfactory. I have a counterpoint to that.

I feel that a dog is visual, as an example:

1. A dog hears, but does not smell an ambulance, and still the dog barks.

2. A dog see's a trespasser and barks, before the dog smells.

3. A dog see's his owner and waits for a biscuit.

4. A dog sees another dog and barks.

The act of smelling for dogs as well as for cats is secondary to visual.

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#11
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Re: Dogs on the Brain

03/16/2017 9:13 AM

I believe that and more: my dogs know holistically when I put into the driveway. They are not organic dogs, as I feed them Purina and bacon drippings. They have dog zen.

If barking could be weaponized these dogs would be the small Samurai of my domicile.

I believe a dog integrates all his/her senses, and combines this with something supernatural to always know what is happening right now, even when they are fully asleep on the couch.

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