Wednesday, 26 November 2014

If I could talk to the animals

I was referred to an article the other day which really fed my geek. It was by Theresa Fisher and entitled "Brain Scans Reveal What Dogs Really Think Of Us" (1). She referred to a research study on neuroimaging in dogs (2). Somehow the researchers had managed to train a cohort of dogs to stay motionless, unsedated and unrestrained in an MRI scanner - no mean feat I would have thought. 

They presented a variety of smells to the dogs with the intention to identify which smells cause the greatest response. They concentrated on responses from the caudate nucleus as that area of the brain is associated with positive expectations. So the theory was that if that area exhibits stimulation, the dogs liked the smell. 

The scents they used included the dog itself, a familiar dog, a familiar human, an unfamiliar dog and an unfamiliar human. The results indicated that the brain responded most positively to the smell of a familiar human. Interestingly the smell was not that of the dog’s owner but someone the dog knew. 

The researchers concluded that “This.…provides important clues about the importance of humans in dogs’ lives” while Theresa Fisher said that this also means that “Dogs don't just seem to pick up on our subtle mood changes — they are actually physically wired to pick up on them”. 

I love research like this and thank Stephen Flanagan for finding it for me. It means that when I talk to my doggy clients or when I sit them in my lap and they look at me trustingly, it is not hokum pokum but because there is a scientific rationale behind it. They like smelling me and are hard wired to relax. 

Then I found another piece of research done locally at the University of Sussex (4) about how dogs really do understand human speech and that they process language in a similar way to us. The researchers placed a cohort of dogs between 2 speakers which played simple recorded commands. The tests suggested that the dogs are able to pick up on subtle aspects of human speech such as emotional tone, intonation and volume changes. 

They concluded that is because dogs process language in the same way as we do. We have what is called a ‘hemispheric bias’ when it comes to communication, with different aspects of language favouring the left or right side of the brain and the test dogs appeared to respond in the same way. They concluded that this similarity in processing sounds may reflect convergent evolution for processing human speech as if dogs have been selected to respond to human vocal signals during domestication. In other words, like the previous study, they are hard-wired to our speech as well as our smell. 

Now if I could only find myself an MRI scanner I could do all sorts of research on the value of playing music to dogs to bring about positive responses (like dear old Harry) or whether they really do understand “Now lift your left leg for me so I can massage your pectoral muscles” or if they just hear “woof...bark…woof…woof…bark”. But in the meantime I am more than happy knowing that tucking the kids under our blanket when they are anxious is not coddling but evidence based. 

Dog massage
Sam and Sarah being 'hard wired'


Appendix 

1. http://mic.com/articles/104474/brain-scans-reveal-what-dogs-really-think-of-us 
2. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376635714000473 
3. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0107205 
4. http://www.cell.com/current-biology/pdfExtended/S0960-9822%2814%2901339-6

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