A New Study May Forever Change the Way We Train Our Dogs
Do Dogs Love?
Ask agility trainers if their dogs feel the emotion of love, and you will get a puzzled look. "Of course dogs love," they will quickly reply. Science, however, is slower to respond and seeks tangible evidence of emotion before admitting its existence.
A new scientific study is beginning to prove that dogs do indeed love. Over the course of two years, Emory University Neuroscientist Gregory Berns looked at MRI images of dogs' brains in a study to find out what dogs think of humans. He released a few of his findings in an op-ed piece for the New York Times on Oct. 5, 2013.
What the MRI Reveals
Berns and his colleagues scanned the brains of a dozen dogs trained to go into a MRI machine. He used different stimuli to see how the dogs' brains would react. His findings show that the area of the brain called the caudate nucleus lights up when the dogs' humans returned into view after a brief separation. This is the same area of the brain that is activated when humans feel love.
In his article, Berns says, "The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs."
This type of MRI experiment has never been done before because it was believed dogs had to be anesthetized before going into an enclosed and noisy MRI machine. This made the study of how a dog's brain lights up when presented with different stimuli impossible. Berns looked for a solution and trained 12 dogs to willingly put their heads in an MRI machine for brief periods, so their brains could be studied while the dogs were awake.
Through MRI studies, we will learn more about how similar we are to our canine counterparts. Much of this is no shock to the agility community. We have known how much our dogs love us for decades upon decades. What may be a shock is how this type of information can change dog training.
The Possibilities May Change the Way We Train Fido
As these studies continue to release information on the emotional lives of our dogs, it will throw light on how we train. I believe we will begin to see a much stronger push toward positive training, and even the positive methods we now use may become drastically different in the few decades ahead.
These studies may well prove that harsh training methods such as shock collars indeed carry a higher punishment price tag than their proponents believe. We will begin to see that dogs—who appear to feel emotions similar to humans based on Berns' initial studies—suffer more under harsh training methods than we originally thought.
I believe as these studies reveal what our dogs are thinking that devices such as shock collars may be banned in the United States and other countries who have not already done so. Other controversial methods such as pinch and choke collars may also become obsolete as we digest how our dogs feel about such methods.
This will cause a shock wave (pun intended) throughout the dog training community. The punishments we use to get our dogs to behave in the manner we wish will be greatly scrutinized and debated. As brain scanning technology improves over the decades and we learn more and more about what our dogs are feeling, we will have to adjust our training methods to meet those emotional truths. We may find the common punishment methods we incorporate now are indeed viewed as abusive by our canine partners.
On the plus side, we will also learn what positive training methods light up the dogs' brains and encourage faster training and communication between humans and canines. This information will be able to further positive training methods and make the training process more fun for both the dog and their handler. We may be able to discover currently unknown, exciting methods to make positive training an even more powerful tool than it already is. These breakthroughs may also help those still using punishment-based methods feel more comfortable about leaving those methods behind for the potentially newer, scientifically proven positive breakthroughs.
What Do You Think?
Do You Think This New Technology Will Change Dog Training as We Know It?
The Agility Dog and the MRI Studies
What may this mean for the agility dog? Well, it's hard to say at this point, but we already know that using harsh training methods slow our dogs down in a sport designed for speed. Dogs who are trained using methods that are too harsh for their personalities will slow down as they carefully avoid punishment.
With potentially new, positive training methods available to us, we could learn how to better motivate our dogs and even how to have more fun with them on the agility course. Maybe someday in the far distant future, we will have cheap, portable devices to help us watch our dogs' brains light up or not light up as we introduce different potential motivators. This would help us easily find the "just right" reward for each individual dog.
It will be very exciting to watch as this new technology changes. We may well be on the brink of a new era in dog training, leaving behind the old "break the will" training methods of the late 1800s for good.
In the future, the MRI machine may be viewed as the liberator of the canine.
The Neuroscientist Speaks
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns' op-ed piece for the New York Times can be found here. In it, he reveals more of what the study uncovered. It is an interesting read and indicates a major future shift in how we will view our dogs.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.