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We love our dogs; scientist proves they love us back

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Dr. Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us. (Bryan Meltz)

Let me start by saying I almost never review books about animals. Everyone who has ever written one has an opinion and normally, its just that — his or her opinion. And there are as many of those as there are people.

Today’s column is no different, even though it is about a book about dogs.

Last week, I received Dr. Gregory Berns’ book How Dogs Love Us, A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, and I couldn’t wait to have a few minutes to sit down with a good read. What I discovered was so much more. Although it was filled with unfamiliar scientific terms, it was also surprisingly easy to read.

Every book ever written about what dogs are thinking is what someone thinks dogs are thinking.

This was something completely different.

Berns took a premise all dog lovers have always known and proved it through the science of brain mapping.

Over two years, Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta taught his dog, Callie, a shelter-rescued rat terrier, to enthusiastically walk into a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and sit, sphinx-like and without moving, until scientists could get thousands of images of her brain in order to map it.

McKenzie, a team member’s border collie and an agility champion, was also in the first round of tests to find out how dogs relate to their humans.

At first, the pair worked for hot dogs and peas. But as research continued, Berns realized something else was afoot.

To start with, both dogs were chosen because each had the demeanor and the drive to learn to sit inside a tube while testing required them to do so in a calm state so the test would record activity in an awake, non-stressed brain.

Berns’ quest began after losing his 14-year-old pug, Newton. After a long period of mourning, he began wondering if Newton felt the same attachment to him.

“Do dogs have some concept of humans as something more than food dispensers? Simply knowing that human feelings toward dogs are reciprocated in some way, even if only partially, changes everything,” Berns writes. He adds that would put dog-human relationships on the same plane as human-human relationships.

Just thinking about the logistics of accomplishing the training necessary to do the study is mind boggling to anyone who has ever trained an animal. Most people hate MRIs. How do you make a dog be amenable to the test?

The project started with the premise that the dogs would be treated as if they were human children. If it was too stressful or painful in any way, the testing would be stopped immediately. Participants were never forced. Everything they did was voluntary.

Berns was accustomed to studying human brains, but this would be something very different. He and his team wanted to compare dogs’ brains with those of humans. Employing a technique used on humans for the past 20 years, the team used functional MRI (fMRI) to study active neurons in the animal’s brain.

Berns discounts the theory that we can rely on wolf behavior to interpret dog behavior. While they share a common ancestor, it doesn’t mean dogs are descended from wolves. This is an important distinction.

“The evolutionary trajectories of wolves and dogs diverged when some of the “wolf-dogs” started hanging out with proto-humans (hypothetical primitive ancestors of modern humans). Those that stuck around became dogs and those that stayed away became modern wolves,” he writes.

This means wolves behave differently from dogs and have very different social structures. Wolf analogies have lead to the flawed training strategies based on the idea that the human must be a “pack leader,” according to Bern.

The team was able to deduce through the study that although a dog can’t talk, his social interaction with his humans is remarkably advanced. It is humans who are not paying attention. In a dog’s eyes, we are his partners, not his leader.

The journey Berns and his team embarked on, and are continuing, is as remarkable as the study’s conclusions to date.

Suffice to say, Berns proves what most pet lovers have always known. Our dogs are much like us. They are sentient beings. Quite simply, they think about what we are thinking.

It is the journey it took to get there that is so fascinating.

How Dogs Love Us from New Harvest will be available Oct. 22. Diminishing discounts on the $25 retail price are available on pre-ordered copies at Amazon.com for hardback and Kindle editions.

Other animals in the news:

October Adoption Promotion — The Portage Animal Protective League will run special dog and cat promotions through October. Dog adoptions are $150 and come with a free leash, collar and toy. And, all black cats are $25. All animals are up to date on vaccines, spayed or neutered, checked for appropriate diseases and free of fleas and worms. The APL is located at 8122 Infirmary Road, Ravenna. For more information, call 330-296-4022.

Volunteer Help Needed — Happy Trails Farm Animal Sanctuary, 5623 New Milford Road, Ravenna is seeking volunteers to help paint inside the 16-by-36-feet office before it is turned into a gift shop. Post hole digging for fencing are needed as well as drivers for small animals to vet appointments and to adoptive and foster homes. Call 330-296-5914.

Boo at the Zoo ­— Annual Halloween program from 6-9 p.m. Oct. 17-20 and 24-27 at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, 3900 Wildlife Way. Tickets are available at clemtzoo.com and at the zoo’s box office. General admission is $8, children under 2 are free.

Spaghetti Dinner —Kitten Krazy & Quick Fix Low-Cost Spay/Neuter Clinic are hosting a spaghetti dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. Oct. 19 at the National Guard Armory, 920 Lafayette Road, Medina. The event is for people 21 and older. All-you-can-eat spaghetti, rolls, salad, dessert and iced tea. Contests, prizes, raffles and entertainment. Admission is $2, dinner is $8 and can be purchased at the door or at Kitten Krazy, 930 Lafayette Road, Medina, or reserved by calling 330-558-1540.

Westie Club — The Northern Ohio Westie club will meet at 7 p.m. Friday at the community room, of Acme Fresh Market, 4445 Kent Road, Stow. Libby Smith will speak on the new AKC recognized activity of Barn Hunt. Nonmembers and owners of other breeds are welcome to attend. For more information, call Chris at 330-833-5434.

Kathy Antoniotti writes about pets for the Akron Beacon Journal. She is unable to help locate, place or provide medical attention for an individual animal. If you have an idea or question about pets, write her at the Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640; call 330-996-3565; or send an email to kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.


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