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 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.

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.
  • John

    I’m doing this research for school and it would be nice to have a a little more detail.
    Who. What. When. Where. Why. And how

  • tyteanna

    i really love this

  • ky
  • Carole-Ann Durocher

    Without such specific social experience, dogs could stay as wild as many other animal species.

    Humans also, would stay as wild as any other species if not shaped and formed by other humans.

  • H.

    John @ This might be of help. The original article. http://kutyaetologia.elte.hu/Pdf/publikaciok/2014/Andicsetal2014.pdf

  • Tina haigh

    Dogs are really great. It would be awful if these experiments repeated the appalling work that was done on the smoking beagles. Dogs have feelings too and they are so loyal no matter how they are treat.

  • Deborah Walsh

    As we are led to believe all humans derive from a mammal similar to a mongoose , it is my opinion that ALL mammals see feel and think just as we do. Whenever a human takes an animal other than a cat or dog into their house as a pet – even hippos and lion cubs – they adapt to their surroundings relying on their amazing ability to read body language and spoken language. It is us who are the ignorant ones, animals are screaming information at us all the time and we are unable to hear them.

  • tribak

    Les hommes font toujours des calculs dans leurs relations, les chiens jamais. J’ai un border collie, avec ses yeux il dit tout ce qui est tendresse, compassion et fidélité.

  • Patricia

    I have Border Collie And i can Say They are Really amazing. We Dont have a farm With animals, Just live in a normal house With garden And She round a cat When She See one exactly Like a shepherd And She never was in contact With other border Collies Or dog trainers, They have This instinct in the blood. Also are exellent jumpers And so faster runners

  • Anthony

    Are you joking me with this article? I’ve read cereal boxes that were more informative and had more supportive scientific evidence. Can you please stop filling your site with incomplete garbage content for people to click on.

  • Maurice Cross

    I work in this field. At the end of the day, analogies are good, but you need autopsy material to ‘read the meat’ and it is sad that so many veterinary colleges do not get PTS (put to sleep) dogs for autopsy. Until you can make the link between live behavior and actual brain histology, then you are fishing for an elusive endpoint. In human medicine we have managed to get the message that we need as many autopsied as possible from patients who die. That message needs to be promulgated in the animal world for the full value of this work to be realized.

  • dzejhav@gmail.com

    We can call them our Animal or semi human friends instead od dogs

  • Ileana

    Nice! It is so interesting! I have two dogs and really enjoy watching them. If I may, for the
    person above who is doing research for school, there are very interesting informations and programs on youtube. One called “Secret life of dogs” presents differents works of different researchers, that you can check after.

  • Paps

    Border Collies are regularly in the news for their intellect. Highly intelligent and highly trainable, they are the perfect K-9’s to assist in this type of research. I have read a few recent articles of dogs being studied and BC’s are always included in the sampling.

    How are we going to find out about the tougher to train dogs?


    More > http://newdogtimes.com/border-collie/

  • u14125341

    The only similarity between dog and human brains is from how the human raise the dog. E.g. Mean human=mean dog. A study by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov has proven this statement (Pavlov’s dogs). We can derive from Pavlov’s dogs that a dog learns all these conditioned responses (tricks) because they would get a reward (not always a treat could be affection or even just a look). Even unconditioned responses (natural behaviour) can be taught to become conditioned responses on cue eg. Trained shepherd dogs. They do learn words but the way it is pronounced also plays a role eg. if we yell in an angry voice “go away” then the dog will go away, but if it is said in a playfull manor they get excited and start to play around instead of going away. The dog can also read body language as that is what nature gave them to survive. eg. If you stand and wag your bum like a dog they will respond in a friendly manner. So it could be said that a dog does not understand the words or sentences he merely interprets the way something is said with the body language that is used and then reacts to it the way he was trained to do.. To summarize this study will be of more benefit on other animals like chimpanzee’s who are more prone to think for themselves. Chimpanzees in human care tend to listen to commands but like humans they soon loose interest or decide “what’s the point of this” and leave. Where a dog would stay when he was told to stay because he knows he is going to get a reward. For this reason dog is known as a mans best friend.

  • smirre

    @u14125341. You make some good points but I would like to point out something that you might like to reconsider. We can define a “word” as a number of letters used in some sequential order to spell something that we as humans recognize as an action in our native language. There are some languages where words must be written phonetically because if written in letters only the same sequence of letters have several different meanings. Thus, like dogs, even humans use the same words, pronounced differently to have different or the same meaning. I can the only assume that in some way you find this study quite plausible as it looks like you have an educated insight in animal science.

  • Judith

    I believe that dogs learn via association, as Pavlov proved. They responed to our traning due to their need to please their master and praise – would it be a treat or approval. This training only work with patience, persistence and praise. I do however believe that dogs associated certain words and hand gestures with certain tasks. This surely might prove that the article above does have merit? That dogs have an area in their brains allocated to “speech”. ( Call it what you will) How would one explain the different tipes of “speech” the dog displays on their own. (Even if wild.) They have different “speech” for each situation, e.g when they play, “chat”, ask for food, try and get your attention or barking/growling when intruders enters their (the owners) teritory? I agree that dogs respond to body language and the way a word is pronounced, but how do you explain a dog obeying different people to the same command as each person has their own way of pronouncing a word? Is that why commands are mostly accompanied with hand gestures? I do believe that certain words can be associated and learned by dogs.

  • u14125341

    @ Smirre Yes some words pronounced differently have different meaning but like you said some still have the same meaning, so for example telling the dog go away no matter how this is said it has the same meaning, pronouncing it differently doesn’t change its meaning. That is why we say the way the command is given also plays a role and not words alone. The study is highly plausible but would have better luck with animals like chimpanzees that can “think for themselves” just like humans.
    @Judith. Yes dogs do have an area in their brains allocated for speech because different barks means different things, they still understand commands such as sit or lay down even without hand gestures for example war dogs understand both hand gestures and voice commands, but once again it is the way it is pronounced that is key. When I say pronounced I mean screaming a command or saying a command. Screaming to a dog to sit won’t really work, because he thinks “I’m in trouble” and then he moves, but with that said war dogs understand their commands even in the heat of battle because they were trained to do so but even then some dogs “freak out” and then they don’t really know what is for what. Thus even with the vague speech understanding this won’t trigger the same brain response because instead of thinking like a human he would be more focused in pleasing his master or listening to the command because of the reward. Where a chimpanzee would think “why am I doing this” or get bored triggering a part in the brain that is more comparable to a humans brain responses.

  • esawyja

    @u14125341, I believe it is a combination of both, they do understand the meaning of words, but also interprets our body language

  • VericalLimit

    I agree with many of these statements above you mentioned here. I have 3 Show American Pit Bull terriers who are trained by me from 3 months to execute commands verbally and with hand signals. (In fact I have found that training with hand signals work faster. ) Of course tone of your voice can be the factor whether your dog will execute the required or will shout down. Example my male will pull up to 5 tones by just hooking him up to the trolley and giving him the verbal command (Pull) but at the same time he can see the trolley and he knows what’s about to happen. Point here is that visualisation at times equals to their reward because this particular breed loves to please its owners. (Its like golden retriever and water.) So whether you give them a sweets or NO, he will still perform whatever you have asked.
    Also when you teach a dog tricks he has to reference words to actions example sit or stay. Now if you dont say anything to your dog or show hand signal, your dog wont know what you are on about BUT if he knows that word “ stay” means stay on your spot till you are called then he/she will perform regardless of the reward. In fact I do not reward my dogs with sweets all the time, only pups when they start they initial training as I need to keep them entertained. With older ones is more about having good time at training. Personally different animals for different things however this doesn’t mean that dogs in this particular case can not contribute but given complexity perhaps yes chimps can be more beneficial provided you can keep them entertained for the duration of the exercise.

  • Jackie

    @u14125341. I agree with quite a few of the points you made. I think when a dog is raised with lots of love and trained with positive reinforcement, such an animal will be a good companion, irrespective of breed. For example, Bull Terriers often have a bad reputation as an aggressive breed, but when I was growing up, we had 4 different Bull Terriers (sourced from different breeders at different times), all with the most loving personalities you could imagine. They were tolerant of small children, and never displayed any aggressive behaviour. I believe this is due to the fact that they were not raised to be aggressive. I also agree with your statements relating to how dogs interpret commands. As dogs rely heavily on body language and cues from other dogs when they interact, it is only logical that they will infer meaning from the body language of humans as well.

  • u14125341

    @VerticalLimit. A trained dog will follow a command even without the reward of a treat or a pet but there a different kinds of reward for a dog. For example by just looking at him with a smile or even without a smile is a reward to them, as you said they love to please. So by just knowing they have pleased their master they are happy. Even military dogs follow the same concept of reward because after every order followed they can’t get treat because there won’t be time for it under fire so the dog will see okay my master is happy I did the command he just yelled “good boy” (maybe) reward received and then go on. I also believe that dogs can contribute to the research but in the end chimpanzees will be better from the start because otherwise there will be too many factors that can proof the study wrong.
    @Jackie. Interesting fact bull terriers, by nature, are one of the most loveable dogs to have. They are very loyal and extremely patient with children. The reason why they have a reputation of being aggressive is because of the way they are raised. They have some specific conditions that have to be met for them to be raised correctly. Most dogs with aggressive reputations are in fact very lovable family dog’s, they just need the correct stimuli when growing up. E.g. Rottweiler’s, Bull terriers (almost all terriers), Boerboels etc. Even wolf’s can be raised as a loyal companion if done extremely to the point correctly.

  • Candy Wilson

    Our family dog is a beautiful 3 yr old Blue American Bully (a breed that are commonly raised as show dogs and frequently confused to be APBT). Prince knows many tricks & commands and will perform regardless of whether it’s myself, the hubby, or our 10 & 11 year olds giving the command. He knows our kids as ‘his kids’, for ex I’ll ask him “Where’s your kids?” And he’ll cock his head and run to the nearest one! But it’s his affectionate side that amazes us the most. He loves giving kisses and often ‘hugs’ as well by pressing his whole side into our legs if we’re standing or laying his head on our shoulders and leaning into our chests if we’re on his level. He smothers us with kisses when we say ‘I love you’ to him. And if any of us are crying or just sad, he’ll curl his body around us whether we’re sitting or lying down and gently lays his paw somewhere on us. Oh & in bed with me and the hubby? Whichever one he is closest to gets to be held by him: he lays same direction as us, head on pillow or nustled under our neck, with his front leg draped across our torso. He’s precious and a literal member of our family! 😀

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