Sunday 13th October 2013

by monke

Noodle, our 1 1/2-year-old schnoodle.

Not a day goes by where my fiancee, Sarah, doesn’t call our dog, Noodle, her “son.” I usually just shake my head and call him “buddy” like a normal person.

Like millions of others, Sarah shuns the idea of “owning” a pet. Instead, since we don’t have any children, she subscribes to the “pet parent” mindset and has embraced it, caring for Noodle like he was our actual son. He goes places with us many dogs wouldn’t and gets treated better than most people I know.

People who love and treat their dogs like kids may seem a little crazy at first glance — especially to a farm kid like me. But a recent scientific study has determined they may not be so crazy after all.

Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University in Atlanta, has used MRI scans of dogs to prove indeed they are just like us.

If you have ever had an MRI, you know how insanely annoying it can be — especially if you don’t like the music the hospital has you tuned into. It’s a constant array of loud buzzes and thumps you must sit through while remaining completely still.

It can be difficult for some people to sit through. Somehow, Berns trained dogs to do it.

After two years, Berns and his colleagues believe they have determined dogs could be a lot more like people than we ever imagined.

Since dogs can’t speak, humans have always judged them by their behavior. A smiling dog is a happy dog. A sulking dog is a sad dog.

Berns’ discoveries not only confirmed that, but went much further. Using only positive training methods and never any sedation or restraints, the dogs — including Berns’ own mutt terrier — were slowly trained how to sit through an MRI scan.

Perhaps most importantly, the dogs were treated as one would treat a human child in a similar situation. People whose dogs were involved in the study had to sign a consent form and if their dog showed it was unable to be a part of the study, it was allowed to quit.

After two years and lots of training, Berns began answering questions about the canine brain. His research found there was a striking similarity between dogs and humans in the brain’s caudate nucleus region, which plays an important role in memory and learning.

Berns found that dogs’ activity in the caudate region increased when hand signals indicated food or they smelled familiar humans. The dogs’ brains showed what was perceived as emotion when their owners stepped out of view shortly and then returned.

Anyone who has ever walked out of a house hearing their dog crying for them to come back knows that emotion.

Berns equated his findings of positive and negative emotions in dogs’ caudates to similar brain function and sentience of very young human children — those who have not yet learned to speak — when it comes to love and attachment.

It confirms what most dog lovers have thought for generations: dogs are capable of showing emotions, especially love.

In my home, Noodle is a charming 1½-year-old schnoodle — a mix of a poodle and a schnauzer — who has quite a personality.

Noodle hangs out with my Grandma Helen. He seems happiest when he’s making someone else happy.

While some dogs prefer to keep their humans at a bit of a distance, Noodle is a face dog. He likes jumping on your lap, but isn’t content there. He prefers getting all up in your face for a kiss or a cuddle. He loves flashing his deep brown puppydog eyes when he believes you’re upset with him and, if you’re having a hard day, he’s the first to climb on your lap and try to console you.

More times than I can count, I’ve seen him place his head on Sarah’s shoulder and lean into her after she came home from a long day of work. It’s his way of hugging her and it’s adorable.

Berns has authored “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain” and believes his findings can help change the way society feels about the way animals, especially dogs, are treated.

He theorizes that his findings could lead to dogs being viewed the same as small children, serve as an argument for punishing pet abusers and perhaps even one day allow pets to be deemed children in households.

While I don’t believe his last theory will come true, I am glad someone has proven that some pets are intelligent beings whose emotions and feelings can be just as real as ours.

Though I’m sure anyone who has been licked in the face by their dog already knows that.

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