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How Do Dogs Think? A Study May Forever Change the Way We Train Our Dogs

Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.

New technology may be able to help us finally answer the question, "What is my dog thinking?"

New technology may be able to help us finally answer the question, "What is my dog thinking?"

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.

Do dogs have a sense of humor?  MRI studies may help answer more than we realize.

Do dogs have a sense of humor? MRI studies may help answer more than we realize.

What the MRI Reveals

Berns and his colleagues scanned the brains of a dozen dogs trained to go into an 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 that 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.

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.


Denise on June 30, 2016:

If we open up our eyes and look beyond our dogs to all other non-human animals, we will see they are all sentient beings and deserve to live rich emotional lives. Once we do open our eyes, and our hearts, our compassion and respect needs to extend to all of them. I hope that day is not so far away.

Me on June 29, 2016:

Given how many parents still use corporal punishment, I'm not optimistic that these studies will really change how many train. I think most of us already safely assume they have the capacity to love us, but if children who can voice feelings with words still get abused in the name of parenting, why would our silent dogs fair any better?

I've always trained reward based, positive, force free, whatever you want to call it. Service dogs, therapy dogs, pet dogs, and other species too.

Lee Rowan on May 27, 2016:

Anybody who doesn't know that dogs love has never loved a dog.

Cheryl McMillan on April 28, 2016:

When interacting with a dog, the slower we go the faster we reach our goal.

CBird on April 27, 2016:

I'm so happy to read this article and not surprised by the MRI results. It's always seemed to me that dogs feel emotions the same as human children. And, I've always been able to positive train my dogs instinctually Most dogs I've encountered want to please and you simply need to let them know clearly what it is you want them to do. I've always hated shock collars and choke chains on animals. It's nice to have some science behind the arguments I've had with those who believe those devices necessary. But then there are parents who believe in spanking and I don't either; so…???

Pete Gray on April 26, 2016:

i wonder if dog emotions evolved in response to the development of emotion in early humans - their whole evolution seems a symbiotic one with their human companions...

Loveabull on April 26, 2016:

Soon enough it should be time to consider doing away with collars as a method of control and restraint altogether--the delicate structures that travel through the neck are not meant to constantly have pressure applied, and certainly not in the gruff and casual way the average dog owner pulls their dog along on a walk, or allows a dog to pull against the collar--just because the dog is pulling does not mean it is comfortable or good for her health; it simply means that the stimuli overwhelms the capacity for self-restraint. There are plenty of humane harness options suited to any number of needs. The sooner we realize that dogs feel as much or more than we do in every capacity, the better off we will all be.

John Parsons on April 25, 2016:

It would be interesting to see the MRI results of "punishment" such as the beloved owner withholding a treat or turning his/her back on the dog, etc. Nothing injurious, of course.

Sharon Berry from Michigan on October 28, 2014:

I have felt, for a very long time, that dogs have emotions. They can feel happy, sad and yes even love. To me, dogs show much of their emotion thru their eyes. Our Joey gets sad when he sees that we are going to leave him for a period of time and oh how happy he is when we get back home. I too believe that you get much farther in training with positive reinforcement over pain. We do use a shock collar when hunting with Joey but this is for his safety too. We are able to locate him if he gets to far out in front of us and if he gets near something dangerous (skunk for example) and his will is outweighing ours, he gets a little poke to bring him back to obeying.

Deborah Sexton on June 09, 2014:

Very interesting information.

The caudate nucleus in humans has been involved with voluntary movement, learning, memory, sleep, and social behavior.

Now, I guess it is the same in dogs.

Jane Wilson from Geogia on June 08, 2014:

I'll admit it - I use pinch collars when I walk multiple dogs. They go crazy with delight when they see the pinch - can't wait for the walk. I don't see it as a punishment. Its their choice to walk politely or get a pinch which they know they can back off of and do.

Back to the rest of your article - great stuff. I love the fact that dogs are now the new darlings of cognitive science. We are learning so many things about them and their abilities to read and respond to us. My "kids" really are kids. lol

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on April 18, 2014:

Thank you so much for stopping by AND for voting!!!

cfin from The World we live in on April 18, 2014:

I always though that dogs could love. Most people just tend to ignore the intelligence and abilities of their dog because they treat them badly. I despise shock collars and phyisical punishment for dogs. Very good hub. Voted up and shared.

theBAT on March 03, 2014:

This is a very interesting hub. I agree that shock collars should not be used on dogs. The MRI machine can help in understanding your pet but it cannot substitute "humane treatment" in training your dogs. Of course, this is just an opinion. Thanks for sharing.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on January 19, 2014:

I'm getting some comments about the use of shock collars pro and con. As this article is not about shock collars and as I've seen shock collar discussions go amiss on forum threads hundreds of times, any comments about shock collars will be deleted. I love comments, but this is not a shock collar blog.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on January 15, 2014:

Hi Bonnie,

Thanks for dropping by!!

You have misunderstood an "Op Ed" piece for a journalistic article. This is a "blog" piece, and therefore, of course it has my opinion in it. It's very important when reading the Internet to know if you are reading an "Op Ed" or "blog" vs. an actual article. Most of my work IS blog related. It is my opinion. I do very little, if any, purely journalistic work. Even the articles you enjoyed (and thank you) were in essence op ed - blog related articles on training because they hold my opinion. You just happened to disagree with this one.

As this piece is so obviously a look into what this type of study may reveal in the future, it is obviously an "Op Ed" or "blog" piece, and yes, therefore it has my opinion. We cannot take a futuristic look without adding in opinion. Op Ed pieces are a very important part of society for examining varying issues, such as this one, and I'm not ashamed of the op ed feel of this as it is a blog. As with most Op Ed pieces, this one contains fact too regarding the results of the study.

There are plenty of news articles - not blogs - on this study you can read. I wanted to examine where this type of study might take us rather than just regurgitate the news articles on this study. I'm sorry you didn't understand by the title and by the blogs content that it was obviously an op ed piece.

BonnieLynn on January 15, 2014:

This was very dissappointing .. all this article does is go over what the study might reveal, while pushing it's own agenda, yet never once touching actual scientific fact that the study actually brought to light. Talk about pushing one's agenda. I'm a huge fan of positive methods, and even I find this article misleading and biased. I was expecting something really interesting as training excites me, but instead I got an article of fluff. And for the record, I use positive training methods only for my dog's when training for agility, but I also have remote collars on hand which are for off leash adventures.. If you have ever had a recall fail because a dog was too interested in a skunk to turn back and come to you, well.. you might understand why some of us want that extra layer of safety should a recall fail. And recalls do fail, they are never 100%, I'd sooner have an ecollar on my trained dog to use for emergencies than worry about it chasing a rabbit into a street.

I will say, your other articles are wonderful and truly thought provoking and interesting, I just wish you put aside your own motives before exploring this topic. When doing research, we should strive to be unbiased and open, that's what's so wonderful about the scientific pursuit.

Rayner Pacheco on January 15, 2014:

This isn't new study. A scientist in Italy did the same study and found more results than of this.

That was in the 90's. The only reason people didn't listen is because as I say and as many others say.

Science is all facts and people who don't want to believe in the fact.

No matter what we do, the way dog trainers train their dogs will never change. For example, I went to an emergency session yesterday and found that the dog had on a shock collar and was on medication. All recommended by the vet and trainer. I'm a Canine Behaviorist btw, I looked at the whole situation and the dog had puppy issues.

I removed the collar and put on a regular MartinGale collar, and did regular common sense training. That was it.

My point here is, this type of study will be done over and over again, the same type of waves will be shown over and over. In the end, no one will listen. Until the unthinkable happens.

Sorry to be a Debby downer, but I needed to say that, this same study was done in the 1990s.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on January 14, 2014:

Thank you, Rae!! Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. :)

Rae Saylor from Australia on January 14, 2014:

Interesting! Thanks for writing this hub! Will make sure to share this with my dog-loving friends :) Cheers!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 23, 2013:

Great stories about Dogman. What an intelligent, loving dog. I appreciate you telling us about him. :)

Cheryl Nunez from AZ on November 23, 2013:

I work with horses professionally, but have brought my dogs through agility, obedience and flyball. I always consider/hope that the scientists are dog owners and are finding ways to understand that yes, dogs do love and have feelings. I offer our Catahoula - a supposedly "untrainable" (per AKC judge) as case in point:

Dogman learned the basics of flyball in 2 training rounds. By the 3rd week (training round #3) he began bringing his flyball equipment to the front door on Sunday morning. Training started at 3PM Sunday afternoon. By 2:30 he'd have his collapsable water bowl, filled water bottle, leash, wider collar, boots, several tennis balls, and evap collar to the door. Everything was in a pile, with balls trapped so as not to roll off. Week 4, we put a milk crate at the door to see what would happen. By 10AM, all his equipment in the crate. When I built portable jumps to practice in the back yard a month later, he would have them dismantled and at the back yard gate for loading in the truck. I would say that was pretty thoughtful.

When we moved, and added horses to the family, my daughter - then 6, would go in the corral to pet them. Our foal took to "trapping" her in the round pen. Dogman recognized this as a game and ignored it. Until one day when my daughter tried to leave the round pen and the corral. The colt, now 4 months old and quite large, pushed the game too far and refused to allow her to leave, running to where ever my daughter climbed the fence to leave and slewing his head at her. He meant no harm, but it did scare her.

Dogman, hearing her calls for help, immediately got in the corral - I have no idea how he got in - and herded the colt off. The colt's mother immediately took this as an assault on her baby. She gave the dog fair warning to leave her child alone, but my daughter had not quite escaped, so Dogman held her child at bay, at which point the mare charged him. He stood his ground until "his" puppy - my daughter - was safely out of their way, then took off in the opposite direction, leading them away from her. They could have killed him - certainly the mare would have, but there was no way he was going to allow his child to come to harm. I call that love.

On the occasion of my daughter's running away, she packed Dogman's water and food bowls, his blanket, a small bag of dog food, several water bottles and her coat. She forgot his leash. When they left home - and I add that this was a dirt road, quiet and safe neighborhood - the dog knew it was very wrong to leave the yard and especially with no leash. He basically glued himself to her left leg and kept her in the middle of the road - where no one could approach her without being seen. She was only 4 years old, so I wasn't surprised when she was back in 20 minutes. What did surprise me was that Dogman had allowed her to go to the first cross street - also dirt. At that point, he braced himself against her little legs, then started pushing her backward so she couldn't cross the road. According to my daughter, she'd had quite the argument with him, and given him several direct commands, which for the first observed time in his life - and that would become the only time in his 15 years - he refused. He continued gently pushing her backwards until she finally turned around and headed for home. When she tried walking past our road, he again braced himself against her legs, pushed her backward, and herded her back to where she belonged. She was so mad at him that she wouldn't talk to him for the rest of the day, even closing her bedroom door so he couldn't come in and try to make up.

Finally, at bedtime, when we always leave the doors open, Dogman could go into her room - which he refused to do until invited, so he lay at the doorway.

I have always known that HE knew he had refused direct commands, and could be punished for that. It didn't matter if we blessed him for doing so, as they weren't our commands. The righting of that wrong had to come from our daughter. When she finally realized she couldn't sleep without him, she invited him in her room. We assumed she'd forgiven him because on checking in before retiring to bed, we found that she and Dogman were side by side, each with an arm over the other.

If that isn't intelligence, love and caring, I don't know what is.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 21, 2013:

Thank you tillsontitan!! Yes, science is really forwarding the advance of better, more positive dog training. It's wonderful to watch as science nails down what we've known all along.

Mary Craig from New York on November 21, 2013:

Hurray! Finally a plus for the dogs. Anyone who has a dog knows his reactions to/for his owner. So glad you introduced this information and hope it impacts training and dog owners as well.

Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Roni on November 06, 2013:

I agree that harsh punishment is unnecessary. I rescued a dog from an abusive owner. She recognized my love immediately and has devoted every ounce of love she can muster upon me. If I leave her presence she cries for me. I also cry for her because of her past life, but tears of joy that I have her with me and she is deeply loved. If I ever doubted whether or not dogs have emotions Shiloh proved me wrong. I feared she may not accept my love after her life began with cruelty and abuse; but she came to me gently and when I took her in my arms I felt her love for me. She is a wonderful pet and no harsh training methods were used once she came into my life.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on November 04, 2013:


Thanks for dropping by and commenting!! In many countries, shock collars are banned, so you may live in a country that doesn't allow them. In the United States, they are still legal. If you Google "shock collar dog training," you will find many articles advocating the use of training with a shock collar. You will also, however, find many articles against the use of shock collars It is a very controversial topic.

Nigel Corcoran on November 04, 2013:

Doh! We’ve had 4 dogs, (3 German Shepherds) and a labrador over the years and I can't believe this is only just being appreciated/realised. I had no idea that 'shock' training devices existed! Surely anyone who uses such backward cruel devices is nothing short of retarded and backward in their knowledge of animals and especially dogs! I have yet to meet a human that shows me anything like the sincerity of love and affection our German Shepherd shows me (including my girl friend). I can think of a few humans who would fall very short on the intelligence stakes compared with our German Shepherd also. My God where do these (I'm sorry) very stupid people come from that think that Dogs don't feel the same feelings humans do?

Get real, wise up and join the real World!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 24, 2013:

Hahaha!!! Me, too, Anne.

Anne on October 24, 2013:

For anyone who has spent time around animals with an open heart and mind, this is obvious. But, for those who need "proof" - well, things like this can only lead to positive changes. Even as a child I was constantly arguing with people who claimed "it's only an animal, it doesn't have feelings." How I'd love to go back and shove this in their faces.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 19, 2013:

Thank you freefrogging. It's obvious you love your dog and he loves you. What a beautiful relationship. Thanks for dropping by!!

freefogging from Florida on October 19, 2013:

My dog is my child", and are treated as such. I have "known" or at least strongly suspected that dogs love for a long time. They have a long memory too and they miss you when you're gone. My dog looks "lovingly into my eyes when I am massaging his and loving on him. He also "kisses" gently and is very gentle with me because I am disabled with pain. He knows. Dogs know more than most people think they do :0)

SH on October 18, 2013:


Although, I have not found a better method to train my dog for loose leash walking (he's a a natural puller) than using a partial choke/half-check/martingale collar (where it only closes halfway) the correct way. Positive reinforcement methods just make it worse, and he has learned to pull on the no-pull harnesses. He's also pretty dominant and stubborn, too, which doesn't help matters. But we still love each other, and I'd do anything for my big boy.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 17, 2013:

Thank you FlourishAnyway!! I'm glad you stopped to read.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 17, 2013:

I'm convinced that dogs do have emotions, as do cats for that matter. Anyone who has ever truly known or loved either one knows this for sure, MRI evidence or not. Great hub.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 17, 2013:

Thank you everyone for taking the time to drop by and comment. I appreciate it!!!

Andrew Channing from UK on October 17, 2013:

Wow.. Just when I thought the intelligence of dogs had been accepted we find an entire new level

Stephanie Constantino from Fountain, CO on October 17, 2013:

This was amazing. I have always felt a deep connection with my dog, Molly. It comes as no surprise to me that she can feel love. Thanks so much for sharing this. Hopefully this kind of research will lead to less animal punishment and cruelty. It breaks my heart to see any animal in pain. :(

Simon TS Morrison on October 17, 2013:

I have NEVER understood why people feel it necessary to bully their dogs into submission. Dogs, with the exception of dogs that have been bred to be savage, will always try to do their best for their human - don't like the word 'owner'. They may get it wrong and sometimes badly but they need helping, not bullying. Have always had rescue/shelter dogs and the way they open up when treated nicely is soo rewarding :).

Incidentally the police in Britain often have to go to Europe to get the really aggressive dogs they need because after a few generations here so many of those Alsatians, Rottweilers etc have all become softies :). Now ain't that nice!?

Floria on October 16, 2013:

I recently read (and then re-read 2x more) the book Reaching The Animal Mind by Karen Pryor. It's her most recent book and it brings answers to so many questions on how positive reinforcement works: in practice, in animal well-being, in aiding interspecies communication AND in the impact it has on the brain of the trainer and the brain of the animal, backed up by scientific data. It is the future of animal training, it's happening right now and is moving in that direction. I greatly recommend the book to everyone.

Elizabeth Parker from Las Vegas, NV on October 16, 2013:

Great hub. I've always believed dogs have emotions and definitely their own personalities. Thanks for sharing!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 16, 2013:

Thank you Alexadry!!!

Adrienne Farricelli on October 16, 2013:

As a behavior consultant, I work a whole lot on changing emotional responses in dogs and it works because dogs are really emotional beings. Voted up!

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 16, 2013:

No, I don't think that for those of us who love dogs that the concept of dogs having emotional lives is anything new. What is new is that we can now scan a dog's brain while it is awake. This will open up the ability for more such studies, and we will perhaps be able to "see" how our dogs feel about a variety of things - including how we train. Thanks for dropping by!!!

LindaLeeH on October 16, 2013:

Is this really anything new (except confirmation)? Emotions occur in a primitive part of the brain. I've thought for a long time that many instinctive behaviors are mediated by emotions.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 15, 2013:

Thank you Jaye and mary for dropping by and taking the time to comment. We are so blessed as humans to have dogs that love us. I'm interested to see how this information will transfer to training methods.

Mary Hyatt from Florida on October 15, 2013:

I don't understand how anyone who lives with a pet can deny a dog has true emotions and can feel love, depression, etc. I have a miniature Schnauzer who "talks" to me. I know exactly what she is trying to tell me. I wish dogs could talk to us in our language. I am convinced they can talk to one another.

Kristin Kaldahl (author) on October 15, 2013:

Thank you wetnosedogs for dropping by!!! I'm happy science is finding a way to prove what we've known for years as well.

wetnosedogs from Alabama on October 15, 2013:

I am happy it is being realized that dogs do have feelings, such as love and grinning - your photo of your dog -positively grinning.

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on October 15, 2013:

I've been reading about research into both the emotions and intelligence of dogs for a while. Since I already intuited that dogs feel many of the emotions that humans do, the study to which you referred comes as no surprise to me. I daresay most dog lovers will agree with me.

My own dog has proven both her ability to love and her cleverness over and over, but it's nice to have scientific validation. When you consider that scientists as recent as a half century ago didn't believe dogs were intelligent (but only reacted through instinct), didn't feel physical pain or emotions, animal behaviorists seem to have finally come into the 21st century--direct from the Middle Ages.