How Dogs Love Us

howdogsloveus_260Gregory Berns got the crazy idea of training his dog to lie still in an MRI machine, in the hope it would provide some insight into dogs’ thinking. What he found brings scientific proof to something every dog person knows — that dogs read us, anticipate our behavior, and act on that knowledge. Dogs, in short, have theory of mind. Berns rightly argues that this scientific evidence must change the way we think of and treat dogs.

What’s especially wonderful about this story is that, at least at the beginning, Berns is not an especially savvy dog person. He loves his dogs, treats them extremely well, but hasn’t spent a lot of time trying to communicate effectively with them or train them. By the end of the book — or maybe by a few months into the research — he’s become convinced that dogs communicate and function on a very high level and that “the key to improving dog-human relationships is through social cognition, not behaviorism.” Quite a journey … in fact, it’s the same journey that I hope to push my students along in Bergin U classes on dog training, canine-human communication and understanding the dog’s perspective. (Any current Bergin U students reading this might as well order their copies now … this book is destined to become required reading in all my classes.)

The book is filled with fairly complex scientific concepts, but it is written beautifully and clearly. It is very easy to understand and, like a good adventure novel, pulls readers along with foreshadowing and suspense. I especially love the long discussion of the ethical issues Berns and his team faced in setting up the research and the insistence of all the human researchers that the dogs would always be free to opt out, at any time. I also love the dog-centric approach the research takes (read the book to find out what I mean!). This book — this whole research study —is a testament to the amazing possibilities that exist when humans acknowledge their dogs’ abilities, treat them as partners (rather than as property or as slaves), and engage with them in a respectful, positive manner.

Because I am nut for precise language, I do have to quibble with the title. Berns does not actually show HOW dogs love us. He does show, I believe, that they DO love their human family members. While he can’t really show us what dogs are thinking, though, he has shown a way to understand their likes and dislikes — and perhaps opened the door to a better ability to read in dogs other emotions that humans and dogs share.

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6 thoughts on “How Dogs Love Us

  1. […] In a recent conversation, a friend described her memories of her grandparents’ house — each room had, obviously, a visual memory, but also a unique scent memory. Many people have experienced being transported back to a meaningful childhood moment upon smelling a familiar scent — Grandma’s perfume, cinnamon rolls, Thanksgiving turkey roasting … But until I read Dr. Gregory Berns’s study “Scent of the Familiar,” I hadn’t really thought of memories, scents, and dogs in the same context. This study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes in 2015, shows that dogs have a pleasurable association with some scents. Berns’s team analyzed MRI scans of several dogs, comparing their brain response to sniffing the scents of familiar and unfamiliar people and dogs. The dogs were all trained, using only positive methods, to lie still in MRI machines, as described in Berns’s book, How Dogs Love Us. […]

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  2. […] Hoping to understand how thinking in smells might work and even to figure out what dogs think about, neuroscientist Gregory Berns trained Callie, his own dog, to sit very still in an MRI machine so he could watch her brain response to different stimuli. Berns studies the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that shows a lot of activity when humans experience pleasure, satisfaction, or anticipation. Turning his research to dogs’ brains was a complicated project, described in detail in his wonderful book, How Dogs Love Us. […]

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