Feb. 20 - According to researchers, dogs can understand how we're feeling. After training 11 dogs to lie still in an MRI machine, a team from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences were able to conduct realistic experiments comparing canine brains to those of humans, and found evidence that dogs are more sensitive to their owners' state of mind than previously thought. Jim Drury reports.
According to Hungarian animal scientists, there's a reason why dogs are man's best friend. Their brains can process emotive sounds, just like ours do. The researchers' findings are the result of neuroimaging experiments comparing the brains of dogs and humans. Attila Andics, from ELTE University, says the tests break new ground in the understanding of canine-human relationships. SOUNDBITE (English) ATTILA ANDICS, POST-DOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOW OF ELTE UNIVERSITY COMPARATIVE ETHOLOGICAL RESEARCH GROUP SAYING: "We have known for a long time that dogs and humans share similar social environment but now our results show that dogs and humans also have similar brain mechanisms to process social information. And we think that this is a great tool, we think that this supports vocal communication between the two species." But the findings did not come easily. Ethologist Marta Gacsi helped train 11 dogs to lie motionless inside MRI machines, while complete scans were taken to record their brain's activity. She says patience was paramount. SOUNDBITE (English) MARTA GACSI, ETHOLOGIST OF ELTE UNIVERSITY COMPARATIVE ETHOLOGICAL RESEARCH DEPARTMENT, SAYING: "Usually we had an experienced, well-trained dog first and we praised this dog and used positive reinforcement, say food reward and social reward." And the team's perseverance paid off. Previous tests haven't been so successful because dogs were allowed to move during scans. But this time, after testing almost 200 different noises on both dogs and humans, the team found striking similarities in the way both species process emotionally loaded sounds', like crying or whining. Andics says both the results and the scientific method, are remarkable. SOUNDBITE (English) ATTILA ANDICS, POST-DOCTORAL RESEARCH FELLOW OF ELTE UNIVERSITY COMPARATIVE ETHOLOGICAL RESEARCH GROUP, SAYING: "This is the first study that compared the human brain function to non-primate brain function, so this is the first time that human brain and non-primate brain, a dog brain, was compared in a neuro-imaging experiment." The team says the realisation that man's favourite pet can understand human feelings should encourage dog owners to behave the same way with their pet as they do with their friends...giving a new perspective on a dog's life.