Photograph by ELKE VOGELSANG
Photograph by ELKE VOGELSANG

What’s Your Dog Thinking? A Brain Scan Offers Clues

Once dogs are trained to lie still in an MRI, scientists can observe their brain activity.

This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

When a dog leaped from a helicopter to accompany the U.S. SEAL team on the raid of Osama bin Laden’s complex in 2011, Gregory Berns was inspired. “I thought, If dogs can jump out of helicopters, we can train them to go into an MRI,” he recalls. The next year the neuroscientist launched the Dog Project at Emory University, which was the first to teach dogs to lie still without sedation in an MRI scanner so their brains can be studied.

By peering into a dog’s brain, researchers are able to see how it reacts to stimuli like hand signals, sounds, and smells. Activity in the reward center can show whether dogs prefer human affection to food (most like both equally), and which ones may not be fit for duty as service dogs (if, for example, they get too anxious or excited with strangers).

Now Berns wants to know how dogs learn human language: “When a dog hears a word, is it just an auditory stimulus, or does it go deeper to have some sort of meaning?” To find out, he’s spent a year watching dogs’ brain activity while they hear familiar and nonsense words.

Because canine brain structures and processes are potentially as unique and complex as ours, it will require years of tests to decipher how they work. “When we talk about ‘dogs,’ that’s about as descriptive as talking about ‘people,’ ” says Berns. “Dogs are just as different from each other as humans are.”

The science of dogs

Baby Talk Like human infants, puppies respond better to high-pitched human speech than to low-pitched. Researchers in New York and France found that pitch may actually help puppies learn words—but by adulthood, dogs no longer prefer a higher octave.

In the Groove Humans and their canine companions both find solace in music. Researchers from the University of Glasgow put on five different playlists for kennel dogs while monitoring their stress. Although reactions differed, the music had a calming effect—particularly soft rock and reggae.

Test Tube Pups After decades of testing, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution and Cornell University produced a litter of pups using in vitro fertilization. Scientists hope to apply the technique to tackle genetic diseases that dogs and humans share.

In the Family When it comes to social intelligence, toddlers show patterns more similar to dogs than to chimpanzees, even though chimps are more closely related to humans. In some communication tasks, University of Ari­zona scientists found that both dogs and kids performed better than chimps.


Brain scans of dogs show that they can understand both words and tone of voice. Video courtesy Attila D. Molnár,