Odds are you don’t look forward to spending time in a magnetic resonance imager–and with good reason. The clanging, coffin-like machine seems purpose-built for sensory assault. But you’re not Ninja, a 3-year-old pit-bull mix, who trots into a lab at Emory University in Atlanta, catches a glimpse of the MRI in which she’ll spend her morning and leaps happily onto the table.
Ninja is one of the few dogs in the world that have been trained to sit utterly still in an MRI (the little bits of hot dog she gets as rewards help) so that neuroscientist Gregory Berns can peer into her brain as it works. “What’s it like to be a dog?” Berns asks, a question that is both the focus of his work and the thrust of his next book. “No one can know with certainty. But I think our dogs are experiencing things very much the way we do.”
That is what we want to believe. Our love affair with dogs has been going on for 15,000 years, and there’s no sign that it’s flagging. About 44% of families in the U.S. include at least one dog, meaning a canine population of up to 80 million.
Most of the time, we give our dogs very good lives. We fancy that they understand us, and maybe they do: come home sad and they’ll nuzzle your hand. They don’t have language, but they communicate volumes–with their eyes, with their barks, with their entire expressive bodies. “Dogs pick up on all kinds of things,” says Juliane Kaminski, director of the Dog Cognition Centre at the University of Portsmouth, in England. “A system has developed in which both species–ours and theirs–attend to each other’s cues.”
That’s something we know intuitively, but science is pushing harder to understand it empirically. Canine-research facilities have been established around the world, in Hungary, Austria, Germany, Italy, Australia and elsewhere. In the U.S. alone, there are facilities at Duke, Tufts and Yale universities. The Association for Psychological Science (APS), which typically concerns itself with the well-being of humans, recently devoted an entire issue of its journal Current Directions in Psychological Science to the canine mind. The findings were often impressive: Dogs can count–sort of–learning to look at two boards with geometric shapes attached to them and choose the one that has more. They can read human faces–understanding the importance of using gaze to communicate and to direct our attention. They can excel at what is known as object permanence–understanding that when an object is out of sight, it has not vanished from existence. It takes humans a lot longer to learn such a basic truth of the world, which is why babies who toss food or a spoon from a high chair will so often not look down at the floor to try to find it.
Dogs may be better too than 3-to-4-year-old children at learning to ignore bad instructions. In a Yale study not reported in the APS journal, dogs and small children were given a box and taught to turn a lever to open the lid and get a treat. When the lever was rigged so that it was no longer needed, the dogs learned to ignore it and simply open the box. The children continued to turn the useless thing all the same.