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Q&A: What Can Dog Brains Tell Us About Humans?

Dogs have a human side. That’s not just their mushy-eyed owners talking, but scientists who study the companionable canines we’ve lived alongside for 30,000 years or more.  Indeed, such is our mental bond with the earliest domesticated animal that researchers are turning to them as models to gain insights into the workings and maladies of...

Dogs have a human side. That’s not just their mushy-eyed owners talking, but scientists who study the companionable canines we’ve lived alongside for 30,000 years or more

Indeed, such is our mental bond with the earliest domesticated animal that researchers are turning to them as models to gain insights into the workings and maladies of the human brain. (See “OCD Dogs, People Have Similar Brains; Is Your Dog OCD?”)

A photo of a border collie.
Dogs (pictured, a border collie) are great research subjects. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic

A scientist whose pioneering work with dogs sheds light on our meeting of minds is Ádám Miklósi, head of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. As co-founder of the Family Dog Project, Miklósi and his colleagues explore how “man’s best friend” has adapted to living in human company so successfully.

Recently, for example, one of Miklósi’s research groups revealed that dogs have a dedicated voice-processing area of the brain, just as humans do.

So, we asked him, what might dog brains tell us about ourselves?

Has domestication made dogs more similar to humans over time, such as in developing certain social skills?  

In some way, domestication had a major effect on the behavior of dogs. As a result, dogs display behavioral skills that are functionally very similar to those of humans. Otherwise, it would be quite difficult or rather impossible for dogs to fit in the human family. Our research group has collected a lot of evidence for such skills. These include attachment, communication, and collaboration, or complex ways of social learning. (See “Opinion: We Didn’t Domesticate Dogs. They Domesticated Us.”)

A dog waits to be tested with an fMRI at the MR Research Centre  in Budapest, Hungary. Photograph by Eniko Kubinyi

It is also important to note that these evolved skills of dogs emerge only if they are properly socialized with humans. Without such specific social experience, dogs could stay as wild as many other animal species.

Why are scientists now focusing on dogs as models for research into human psychological conditions such as ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Alzheimer’s disease?

Dogs and humans share many medical and psychological conditions. This has been known for a long time, but researchers had not capitalized on this similarity up to now.

The reason why dogs could be very interesting is that a lot of them share their life with people, and they are exposed to many of the same stress factors as humans, including polluted air or manufactured food.

But dogs are also exceptional because they receive medical treatments that may contribute to their relatively long life in human families. This allows for the emergence of other pathologies such as cognitive impairment in old dogs, which is analogous to the same mental problem in humans.

To what extent might dogs provide clues to how human traits such as language evolved?

Language, as far as we know today, is a unique human trait. Researchers have long assumed, however, that specific cognitive skills, which also play a role in human language, had evolved much earlier and may be present not just in primates but also other mammals or even birds. (Watch video: “Reading a Dog’s Signals.”)

A photo of dogs waiting to be tested with an fMRI.
These dogs, at the MR Research Centre in Budapest, can be trained to participate in experiments. Photograph by Borbala Ferenczy

Dogs may be interesting for their understanding of human vocal commands. It’s been shown that dogs can understand the “name” of words as well as verbs, and execute complex object-related actions based on verbal commands. It may be interesting to see how and where the dog brain represents “words” for objects and action.

In future, what else might dogs tell us about the human brain?

The future offers a very broad perspective. Using the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) method, one can directly compare where and how dog and human brains process the same stimuli. At the moment we are learning more about the dog than about humans, but this may change in time. (Check out National Geographic’s Brain Games.)

Also interesting is how a much smaller brain deals with the same type of environmental stimulus. Family dogs and humans share the same environment, so similarities in brain functioning could be the result of similar experience, or they could be the result of some general mammalian function. I think only human-dog comparisons have the chance to answer such questions because most mammals could not be tested by using this [brain-scan] method.

Is this why dogs could be seen as a better model than primates for understanding processes in the human brain?

Dogs have several advantages. It is much easier to train a dog to be able to participate in our fMRI experiments than to train a chimpanzee or a rhesus monkey. Dogs also show a huge variability represented by the breeds, and a large number are available for such investigations. (Take National Geographic’s dog quiz.)

This also means that there is no limit on running such experiments, in contrast to the apes, where only a few animals (and always the same individuals) can be tested.

Can dogs be used for such research without causing them harm or distress?

Researchers must avoid harming dogs. We have always worked with family dogs—this is the basis of our specific ethological method. We have always avoided harming the dog, and tried also to design experiments in which the dogs’ suffering was minimal. (See National Geographic’s dog pictures.)

Actually, our general experience was that most dogs enjoyed taking part in the experiments. Even the dogs trained for lying motionless for six minutes in the fMRI scanner like to come to “work.” In my view, dogs can teach and also force scientists to develop methods that do not harm, or harm minimally, their experimental animals.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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Meet the Author

James Owen
James Owen is a journalist and author based in Stockholm, Sweden. After cutting his teeth on the news and features desks of several UK newspapers, he struck out as a freelance writer, specializing in life sciences and natural history. His fish biography 'Trout' (Reaktion Books) was published in 2012.