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Science Proves a Harsh Truth About Very Good Dogs

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Salty Dog

Science Proves a Harsh Truth About Very Good Dogs

Don’t worry, though. They’re still good dogs.


You know how your heart melts whenever a pup raises its eyebrows? That’s no accident. While research on non-human animals has long suggested that facial expressions are involuntary, it turns out dogs may be different, and like humans, able to control their facial expressions to get what they want. Are you really surprised?

In a 2017 study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers tested whether dogs illustrated the “audience effect.” They found that dogs reacted with more noticeable facial expressions when humans were around than when there were no humans around, suggesting that dogs use facial expressions to voluntarily communicate.

A team of researchers at the University of Portsmouth Dog Cognition Centre devised an experiment to investigate whether dogs’ facial expressions are subject to audience effects, which simply means that they wanted to see whether dogs made different faces when they thought they weren’t being watched. This would suggest that they’re voluntarily controlling their facial expressions, changing what we know about animal behavior.

The alternative, that dogs are simply making involuntary faces that express their excitement, sadness, or anger, has been the standard view.

To test these two possible explanations, researchers presented dogs with four different conditions:

  • paying attention to the dog while giving it food
  • paying attention to the dog but not giving it food
  • giving the dog food but not paying attention
  • not paying attention or giving food

Food is stimulating for dogs — as most of us know — so the researchers wanted to tell whether dogs’ reactions to food changed depending on a person’s attentiveness. This would test whether the dogs behaved differently with a person paying attention to them, and if they did, it would suggest that the differences in facial expressions are voluntary.

If dogs make faces involuntarily, they’d be expected to make the same faces when they get food alone or around people. But as you may have guessed by now, that’s not how it played out.

The authors found two main things: “First, human attentional state affected the production of dogs’ facial expressions,” they write. “Dogs produced significantly more facial expressions when the human was oriented towards them, than when the human had her back turned to the dog.” Second, and almost more interestingly, they found that the visibility of food did not affect the dogs’ behaviors.

“So, while dogs produce more facial expressions when the human is oriented towards them and in a position to communicate, the visibility of non-social but arousing stimulus (the food) did not alter their facial movements in the same way,” write the study’s authors.

Is your dog manipulating you?

It’s impossible to say if your dog is messing with your head, but this study suggests it. And it definitely provides evidence that the faces your dog makes are less about the food you have in your hand and more about getting you to do what it wants.

“Our study highlights that a non-social stimulus which has been proven to be arousing for dogs, does not have any effect on the production of their facial expressions,” write the authors.

Your dog may love you, but it’s also probably manipulating you. Let’s be real, though: You knew it in your heart all along.



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Salty Dog

What Does Your Dog Really Want?

With MRI, scientists are beginning to answer that question in a much more sophisticated way.

Scientific American | Gregory Berns


In early 2017, Alaska became the first state to pass a law requiring the consideration of pets’ well being in custody disputes. Seeing that pets, especially dogs, are commonly treated as family members, this may seem like a long overdue change. But it raises the difficult question of determining what’s best for an animal: How do we know what a pet wants?

In 2013 Shannon Travis and Trisha Murray appeared in the New York State Supreme Court. The couple had been married for less than a year when they decided to divorce. While Travis was away on business, Murray moved out of their New York City apartment. She took some furniture—and she took Joey, their dachshund.

According to court records, Travis believed Joey belonged to her because she was the one who bought him from a pet store. Murray disagreed, arguing Joey belonged to her because, among other reasons, it was in the dog’s best interests. She gave the example that Joey slept next to her side of the bed. With little precedent to go on, the court had to decide whether it made sense to hold a custody hearing for a dog.

Joey was granted his hearing.

It is one thing to adjudicate the division of property but it is an entirely different matter to consider the interests of a dog. If a dog is property, as the law at the time said, then it could have its own interests no more than a piece of furniture could. That would be like saying a chair cared about which room it was placed in. To figure out what is in the best interests of a dog, you would have to know what it’s like to be a dog.

Forty years ago the philosopher Thomas Nagel said this was impossible because animals are just too different from us. (Specifically, he was talking about a bat, but the problem is the same.) His real target, though, was neuroscience. He argued that knowledge of how an animal’s brain worked wouldn’t get us any closer to what it was like to be that animal. His essay cast a long shadow over neuroscience.

When Nagel wrote his essay, the tools of modern neuroscience did not exist. Indeed, the only way we had access to mental states was by observing behavior or, in the case of humans, asking what a person was thinking or experiencing. Both are obviously imperfect measures of mental states. The human primacy of language had caused many researchers to abandon the possibility of knowing what an animal experienced and focus instead on observable behavior. Because a dog can’t say to himself, “I’m scared,” some scientists had even taken to redefining the most-studied animal emotion— fear—as a behavioral program that an animal implemented to avoid something painful. But this was a step backward toward a Cartesian view of animals as automatons—a view that closed off any possibility of determining what was in a dog’s best interest as the Alaskan law required.

But our understanding of the brain has advanced a great deal since Nagel’s essay. Tools like optogenetics, in which researchers can control neurons with light, and noninvasive technologies like MRI, my preferred instrument, have begun to connect the dots between brain structure and function and how this relates to mental experiences. If these techniques work for humans, there is no reason why similar approaches couldn’t be used to decode animal states of mind.

So, in 2012, my colleagues and I began a project to train dogs to willingly and happily go inside an MRI scanner so we could better understand how their brains worked. What started with two dogs, including my adopted terrier, Callie, eventually grew to a cohort of 90 “MRI-dogs” that have participated in a dozen different experiments.

Now, after hundreds of scan sessions, I have to disagree with the Cartesians and the Nagelians. Not only can we have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a dog, we can use this technology to know what a dog really wants— sometimes better than we can by observing their behavior.

In one of our recent experiments we set out to determine whether dogs’ apparent love of their humans was driven entirely by the provision of food or whether dogs valued the relationship for purely social reasons. While they were in the MRI we presented the dogs with two objects, which served as visual cues. One object meant they would receive a piece of food on the end of a stick, the other telegraphed that their human would pop into view and say something like, “Yay, good girl!”

We focused on an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus. In humans the caudate is particularly active during the anticipation of something pleasurable. More generally, the caudate links motivational states to motor systems so animals can get what they want. In dozens of studies, human caudate activity has been correlated with individual preferences.

We did the same thing with dogs, using their caudates to measure their relative preference for food or praise. In the 15 dogs who participated we found a range of responses. Measured by their brain activity, two dogs really liked food whereas four preferred human praise and attention. (One was appropriately named Velcro.) But most of the dogs liked both—at least their brains did.

We also measured the dogs’ preferences by offering them a choice outside the scanner. In a large room we set up a “V”-maze with the owner at the end of one arm and a food bowl at the end of the other. The dogs ran the maze 20 times, and we analyzed the sequence of their choices. Dogs whose brains were more active to praise tended to repeatedly go to their owners whereas food-loving dogs’ brains stuck with the chow. But most interesting were the dogs whose brains like both food and praise. These dogs tended to sample back and forth between food and owner in the maze.

This is the problem with relying solely on behavior to intuit what a dog wants. Like people, they may have competing preferences. Placed in a situation and forced to choose one or the other, they may adopt any number of strategies that have nothing to do with their true preferences. They may go to the largest thing; they may always go left or right; or they may just stick with the first thing they chose even if the other option might be better. The MRI data opened a window into the dogs’ minds without forcing them to make a choice.

For all of these reasons, judges faced with determining pet custody should resist the temptation to simply let the dog choose. One can easily imagine a dog choosing an abusive owner out of fear or going to the person with brighter clothing. In Travis v. Murray the court was aware of the potential of dog-MRI but did not think it practical. But now, after having trained almost a hundred dogs, we see it is not so hard for many dogs to go in an MRI scanner, and the window into their brains tells us things that their behavior does not.

If this had been Joey’s brain, and instead of food versus praise it had been his two owners, his brain might have preferred joint custody. Alas, he never had his day in court. The humans settled his situation before his hearing.



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Salty Dog

Dog Brains Reveal How Much Human Language They Actually Understand

Researchers reveal what really happens when a dog hears “sit.”

Inverse | Sarah Sloat


We love to tell dogs what to do, but we rarely consider whether they understand what we’re saying. Pet owners assume their dogs comprehend commands like sit, stay, or heel — even play dead and make me Instagram famous, for that matter — but without the ability to read their minds, no one can know for sure. An ingenious new study in Frontiers in Neuroscience, however, finds a way to determine which of our commands they actually understand.

The fact that we can teach dogs tricks makes it obvious that, at a basic level, they can discriminate words from non-words. But in this paper, the objective was to figure out what actually happens in a dog’s brain when it hears its owner’s command.

“This study really highlights that dogs don’t process language as humans do, and that while we train dogs with verbal commands to perform actions, this doesn’t mean that they derive the same meaning from nouns the way humans do,” study co-author Ashley Prichard tells Inverse. Prichard is a doctoral student at Emory University who specializes in studying the neural mechanisms underlying perception and decision-making in dogs using “awake fMRI.”

Before the 12 canine participants went into the fMRI machine, they were trained by their owners, for ten minutes a day, to retrieve either a soft stuffed monkey toy named “monkey” or a rubber pig toy named “piggy.”

At the end of the months-long training session, each dog was instructed to lie in the fMRI scanner while its owner stood directly in front of it. In some of the trials, the owner would say “piggy” or “monkey” then hold up the respective toy. In the other trials, the owner would hold up random objects, like a hat or a doll, and pair those objects with a gibberish word, like “bobbu” and “bobmick.”

When the pups heard “piggy” or “monkey,” there wasn’t much of a change in brain activity. When they heard gibberish, however, there was greater activation in the auditory regions of the brains. That’s the opposite of what happens when humans undergo the same experiment: We demonstrate greater neural activation when we hear words we know.

“The most exciting finding is probably that the greater neural activation to pseudowords [gibberish] over the trained words in dogs is different than what is common in human language studies,” Prichard explains. “In human fMRI, greater brain activation to pseudowords than known words means that humans are likely trying to associate meaning with the pseudowords that sound similar to words they already know.”

Prichards reasons that dogs that heard gibberish could be doing the same thing — trying to understand unfamiliar words. Dogs have been wired by natural selection to want to please us — and to want the cookies we give them when they please us — so it makes sense they would strain to find meaning in the nonsense.

When the dogs in the study heard gibberish, half of them showed increased activity in their parietotemporal cortex, which may be analogous to the part of the human brain that processes lexical differences, and the other half showed heightened activity in their left temporal cortex, amygdala, caudate nucleus, and the thalamus. The researchers think that these differences in brain regions are likely due to the varying range in breeds and sizes, but one thing is more clear — each of these dogs was likely struggling to understand what was going on.

This isn’t to say that the dogs didn’t respond at all to the words they had been trained on at home. Behaviorally, the dogs demonstrated that they had the ability to retrieve the two toys based solely off hearing either “piggy” or “monkey.” Meanwhile, the fMRI data revealed that their brains discriminated between the words by engaging regions that are similar to the human brain regions involved in language processing.

While humans will always default to verbal commands for their pets, this study underscores the fact that language isn’t the best way to communicate with a dog. The more effective way to communicate with a dog is through visual and scent cues.

“Everyone who has a dog may think they are an expert, but there really needs to be more research on how dogs think and perceive the world, not just how we humans think that they do,” Prichard says. “I hope that this research is a step towards better human-dog interactions.”



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16 hours ago, Salty Dog said:

The humans settled his situation before his hearing.

This is the kind of stupid crap that will keep me awake tonight.  I read through all that and i still dont know who got to keep the damn dog!

i was rooting for murray.  She sounds sneaky and deserving of a daschund.

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On 7/9/2020 at 8:55 PM, rfm010 said:

This is the kind of stupid crap that will keep me awake tonight.  I read through all that and i still dont know who got to keep the damn dog!

i was rooting for murray.  She sounds sneaky and deserving of a daschund.

I would have just auctioned it between the 2.  Perhaps a blind auction.  And adjusted the settlement between the 2.

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