Like any relationship, dog owners are always curious to know what their dogs are thinking or feeling. As humans, our curiosity to understand our pets and build legitimate bonds with our pets is part of our intrinsic need to connect with sentient beings. Thanks to new research, dog owners can get a glimpse into the thoughts of their canine friends.

Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, identified whether dogs really love their owners —  and the answers may reassure dog owners that they really are man’s best friend.

The Question: Do Dogs Really Love Us?

In 2011 Dr. Berns noticed that trained dogs were part of the raid against Bin Laden. When Berns saw that dogs could be trained to withstand the noise of a helicopter, although they have very sensitive hearing, he thought a dog could be trained to withstand a noisy M.R.I. machine.

That was when Berns conceived the idea to find out what dogs were thinking and feeling. As a neuroscientist, he’s seen how M.R.I. studies have helped researchers understand the anatomy of the human brain in the emotional process. He believed the testing could show similar research about dogs and if they had analogous functions in their brains like humans.

But there was also an emotional component to Berns’ reasoning. After his own dog, Newton, passed away, he wondered if he had loved him or only showed affection toward him because he fed Newton on a daily basis.

The Experiment

In order to process what dogs were thinking in an M.R.I. scanner, Dr. Berns needed dogs to stay still long enough to show them pictures. He worked with a dog trainer to help dogs get comfortable with the M.R.I machine. After he built an M.R.I. simulator in his basement and helped his other family dog, Callie, acclimate to the noise, teaching her to climb stairs, and recline into a headrest and be motionless for increasing periods of time. After three months of practicing each day —  and perfecting the training system — they searched for local volunteer dogs to practice the study.

Since 2012, Berns and his team have trained and scanned about 90 dogs, never restraining or drugging any. If a dog wants to interrupt the study and roam around, they are given full autonomy.

During testing, they used similar neuroscience tests completed on people. They trained dogs to do the go, no-go test which measures the ability of subjects to delay gratification. First, they trained the dogs to poke targets with their nose whenever they hard a signal for go; a whistle. The no-go signal was arms raised in a cross. When the dogs saw the arms raised while hearing the whistle, it was still a no-go signal. On the scanners, the researchers could see that the no-go signal stimulated the prefrontal lobe with more activity. It showed that dogs use corresponding parts of their brain to solve tasks like humans do.

For the Love of Dogs

To more clearly examine how dogs’ affection for humans, the researchers conducted experiments where they offered hot dogs part of the time and praise at other intervals of the experiment. After comparing the responses, they saw that the large majority of dogs responded to praise and food equally. About 20% of dogs had a stronger response to praise than to food, concluding that a large number of dogs love humans at least as much as they love eating food.

During these experiments, they were also able to show pictures of objects and people to dogs. They found that dogs have dedicated areas of their brain for processing faces, so dogs are naturally wired for processing, recognizing, and reacting to human faces which helps them build bonds with us.

Using the Research

There are practical implications for this new research. It can be useful for training service dogs. Working with Canine Companions for Independence, Berns and his team were able to identify which puppies were likely to be successful. Using the M.R.I scans on the dogs, they were able to identify the best candidates to act as service workers had more activity in the brain region that had the most dopamine receptors. They also had less activity that indicates fear and anxiety. Ultimately, this could help save trainers time and money, and help dogs find the right living situation that fits them best.

In animal shelters, this research could be used to help animals who have aggression issues. As we learn more and more how the brains of animals function, we can offer them better care alternatives. These studies can not only provide insight into the ways animals react to humans, but also the way we treat animals. It can help reshape how we interact with animals and how they’re treated in industrialized centers, especially now that research reinforces that animals are cognizant of their own suffering.

As science helps us understand more about animals, perhaps we can help other people build more empathy to the way they treat innocent creatures and reaffirm our bonds with man’s best friend.