London - My dog knows when I’m going out because I apply make-up. On the other hand, if I’m putting make-up on but not going out, her response is different. So the application of eye-liner is either a trigger for acute anxiety (‘Oh no, she’s going to leave me!’) or for mild, affectionate curiosity (‘Ah, my human is so vain...’).
But how does Bonnie the Maltese know? Surely she is, quite simply, reading a mind attuned to her own for nearly 12 years.
American neuroscientist Gregory Berns would tell me I am correct. Any dog lover will give examples of how their pets understand their actions, or somehow intuit that they are about to arrive home even before they hear the car and so on.
Berns wanted to discover if there could be a scientific explanation for such phenomena. He had spent decades using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) to study the human brain. Then, in 2011, it occurred to him that the same technology could be used to study dog brains, in order to further our knowledge of what they are thinking.
His own mutt Callie and a ‘volunteer’ Border collie called Mackenzie were carefully trained to tolerate the conditions, with a vet always present, and many treats to sweeten the long process.
To put it simply, by scanning a dog’s brain while it responded to certain hand signals or smells, the scientists would learn, from the responses shown in the cross-sections of the brain, just how excited they became and by what. They could de-code the responses and work out why (for example) a dog will respond to the smell of a beloved human when that human is not in the room, and so on.
The science lost me a bit at times, but anybody can understand what he means when he says that ‘doing something for food would look very different from doing something for social praise, or, dare I say, love.’
In one sense it serves to confirm scientifically what we dog-lovers have always known. For example, when the family dog Callie responded to the smell of Mrs Berns’s sweat on a cotton pad, ‘these patterns of brain activation looked strikingly similar to those observed when humans are shown pictures of people they love’.
The sceptic might suggest the author is seeking to find an academic explanation for what is unknowable. Centuries of conditioning since the first wolf came in from the cold, sensing it needed humans, and all those years of mutually beneficial dog-human bonding and service brought a unique empathy which ultimately defies explanation.
The larger point of the research is humane and far-reaching. Berns wants us to understand dogs more, so that the unique bond between this animal and humankind might be strengthened. He writes, ‘In answer to the question, “What are dogs thinking?” the grand conclusion was this: they’re thinking about what we’re thinking.’
No wonder Bonnie knows I hate to think of her drooping tail when I walk out the door.