16 Things We've Learned From Scanning Dog Brains

We may think of dogs as man's best friend (or our little fur babies), but what do dogs think about us? Humanity may never fully know, but we are closer to an answer thanks to dog brain scan studies. In examining dogs' brains, scientists are discovering how our canine companions' brains work and how dogs think. In fact, some of the facts we've learned about dog brains show us they're more like people than once thought.

Scientists have specially trained canines to enter and stay in a fMRI machine - complete with headphones to protect their sensitive ears - to study what happens inside a dog's brain. The results of the brain scans are intriguing, providing evidence that dogs are complex and emotional creatures, something most dog owners probably knew all along. A dog’s happy or guilty-looking expression may not mean exactly what you think, but humans are finally closer to resolving the question, "How do dog brains work?" 

Photo: TheSmileAndFunny1 / YouTube

  • Dogs Really Do Love Us

    Dogs really, actually do love us. Research shows dogs see us as their family, and that dogs see people as more of kin than other unfamiliar dogs. Not only do they love humans, dogs love their particular owners even more.

    A study at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna showed dogs are more willing to perform tasks for their owners, and that when they receive praise for said tasks, the positive receptors in their brain light up. 

  • Dogs Know Their Humans' Scent And Prioritize It Over Everything Else

    Sure, we've seen plenty of dogs on TV used to sniff out humans in danger. But does it really work? It isn’t just a piece of fiction. Smell is considered a dog’s most important sense. They use the 300 million plus olfactory receptors in their noses (compared to a human’s approximate six million) to understand the world around them, as well as their human counterparts.

    A 2014 study examined the canine ability to discern between scents of familiar dogs and people and the unfamiliar. It was revealed dogs actually prioritize humans over other dogs and pleasant smells. The smell of their human activates the reward center in their brain. Apparently, Fifi is just as glad to smell you as she is to see you.

  • Dogs Recognize A Human’s Emotional State

    Sometimes it may seem that Rover is mimicking your emotional state. Dogs have the unique ability to distinguish between smiling and neutral human faces, and will use that information in their reaction to people. They will also use visual facial cues to determine a human’s attentive state.

    For instance, if a dog notices you are looking at them, they will be more attentive in return. But if you should cover your head, they may stop paying attention to you all together. If only human relationships were that simple.

  • Humans And Dogs Share The Same Reward Center In The Brain

    Want to know why dogs love their treats so much? It's not only about the taste. Dogs and humans both have a part of their brain that responds to rewards. In neuroscientist Gregory Berns’s study, dogs were given hand signals associated with treats. One hand signal meant the canine participant would receive a treat, the other meant no treat. The caudate nucleus region of the brain - an area associated with reward in both canines and humans - lit up for the treat signals but stayed dark for the non-treat signals. 

    Berns noted, “These results indicate that dogs pay very close attention to human signals, and these signals may have a direct line to the dog’s reward system.” The caudate is also associated with positive emotions and the smell of their human. This activation is known as functional homology and it is a possible indicator of emotions in our canine companions. 

  • Dogs Are The Only Non-Primate Animal To Look People In The Eye

    Dogs dig eye contact, so much so that dogs will look people in the eyes to communicate needs and emotions. In fact, dogs would rather look a human in the eye over their biological dog parents. Dogs are the only non-primate animal to do this.  If you're a dog owner, you know the look. When dogs want something - food, attention, to go to the bathroom - they're apt to look at their human owners to tell them. As neuroscientist Atilla Andics noted, “Bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets.” 

    Like humans, eye contact can also be reflective of an animals nature, whether it be a timid or aggressive one. Which is why we are sometimes warned not to stare at a dog - especially ones who doesn‘t know us - since it may be interpreted as a challenge. Humans are again similar, and are known to engage in unconscious staring contests to establish dominance with each other. Dog trainers also note the importance of eye contact with your pet in order to focus their attention on you. 

  • The Meaning Of Words Are Understood Somewhat By Dogs

    When you tell your dog you love them, they understand. Well, sort of. Studies have revealed that dogs process language in the same brain region as humans. Victoria Ratcliffe of the University of Sussex discovered dogs are aware “not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say.”

    Scans from a Hungarian study revealed familiar words are processed in the left hemisphere of a dog's brain with the emotional tone processed in the right. A human’s brain works exactly the same way. However, this doesn’t mean Fido can comprehend what you’re saying in the way another human would. Rather, in order to be understood, the familiar word needs to have meaning to the dog. This could mean the word is associated with praise, attention, or scolding.