Rachel loved Harley, a two-year-old neutered male Border Collie she adopted
six months earlier. They did everything together—hiking, biking, long daily
walks, and toys. And, boy, did Harley have toys, including those he had to
work to get food out of. Rachel trained with Harley twice a week for agility
and other sports and continued with his training every day. Their relationship
seemed just perfect.
Over the holidays they visited her family, and all went well until the day
they visited her sister’s home. While there, Harley took a very strong interest
in the niece’s flashing shoes and the flashing lights on the Christmas tree.
The whole family thought it was cute and laughed when he chased after the
lights. “Look at Harley chase me!” the niece called happily while she ran
around the house with her special shoes.
The next day Rachel was not so happy when Harley pounced onto her in
bed, chasing the filtered light streaming in through the windows. She was
able to distract him pretty easily, but by the time they returned home, his
behavior had escalated and she had to pull him away from any flickering light
or moving shadow. Her roommates thought it was cute until one of them
tripped over Harley when he chased after the light coming from the open
Rachel was at a loss as to what had happened. Harley used to be such a
great companion. Now he would even ignore her on walks if he saw shadows
from the sun filtering through leaves or a glimmer of light bouncing off a
hubcap. He would leave his food toys to rush over to chase the light on the
floor coming from the open microwave. Throughout these episodes, he never
looked worried or stressed, but he became less and less connected to Rachel.
Rachel brought Harley to her veterinarian to see if she could find anything
physically wrong. After getting a history, her veterinarian considered a
neurological disorder or a problem with his eyes. Harley passed a complete
physical examination with flying colors, so the veterinarian referred to Harley
and Rachel to a veterinary behaviorist. After a visit, Harley was diagnosed
with a compulsive disorder. While this term conjures up images of people
who wash their hands a lot, it is different in animals.
A diagnosis of the compulsive disorder is made when the animal cannot seem
to control repetitive behavior and is often unresponsive to interruptions.
The behavior is often in response to a trigger (such as lights and shadows),
but not always. It can have a profound effect on the animal’s quality of life
and interfere with a dog’s normal ability to function day to day.
Certain breeds may be more likely to exhibit specific types of compulsive
behaviors. For example, Border Collies, like Harley, are devoted to herding
other animals. Perhaps, due to their drive to be working with livestock, they
redirect the herding behavior toward a seemingly inappropriate target. In
Harley’s case, he replaced sheep with lights and shadows. Redirecting is
performing a behavior toward an object that you wouldn’t normally direct
that behavior to because the normal object isn’t there.
Compulsive behaviors appear to arise from normal activities, such as moving
(spinning, tail chasing, fence running, pacing, light or shadow chasing),
grooming (licking or sucking an area of the body), eating or licking objects,
or vocalizing, and seem to occur at continuously high levels. It often appears
that the dog has no control over beginning and continuing the behavior, and
the behavior can be self-injurious. These behaviors are repetitious (the same
behavior occurs over and over). You might hear that your dog is exhibiting
these behaviors because he is bored, doesn’t get enough exercise, is looking
for attention, or has an inappropriate relationship with you. None of these is
correct for an animal with a true compulsive behavior.
So what does cause repetitive behaviors, and when do they become a
compulsive disorder? Repetitive behaviors (behaviors that occur over and
over) can be due to a number of problems. One of them is that the dog has a
true compulsive disorder, as Harley does. However, repetitive behaviors can
also be explained by underlying medical problems, attention-seeking
behaviors, or ways to cope with another problem behavior or stressor.
Sometimes a combination of these causes is behind your dog’s behavior.
Why compulsive disorders occur is not well understood. There may be
alterations in neurotransmitters in the brain—the chemicals that communicate
information from one neuron to the next. Some of the neurotransmitters
thought to be involved are serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. In some
dogs, frustration or conflict (when the dog can’t do what he wants to do)
seem to help trigger the compulsive behavior, and the behavior may then be
maintained by these neurotransmitter changes.
Regardless of the underlying cause, owners often end up at their wits’ end
trying to get to the bottom of their dog’s behavior. They try a lot of training,
like Harley’s owner, and feel that they can do no more to help their dog. They
are stressed, the dog is stressed, and this escalates the frustration, which can
interfere with the relationship they have with one another.
Does your dog just need more exercise? Some of Rachel’s friends told her to
get some sheep for Harley to herd—easier said than done for someone living
in the suburbs. “Increase his exercise,” “give him a job,” “give him more toys
at home”—she’d heard it all. Without quitting her job, Rachel would find it
difficult to squeeze much more time into exercise. Besides, Harley had
dozens of different toys in the house and yard that he was no longer playing
with because he was chasing the lights. Compulsive behaviors aren’t just
Are all repetitive behaviors compulsive disorders? Occasionally a medical
problem can be mistaken for a compulsive disorder. Jasper, a male neutered
Coonhound was seen by a veterinary behaviorist when he was fourteen
months old because he was licking the floor. When the problem first began,
he would lick and leave a trail of saliva on the floor every morning, and by
early afternoon he seemed like a normal dog. Over a few months, the problem
increased to licking the fence outside for hours, stopping only when his
owner gently pulled him away. When we saw Jasper, his veterinarian had
already started him on sertraline (a medication that increases serotonin), but it
didn’t seem to be helping. His bloodwork and stool sample were all normal.
Jasper seemed nervous throughout the appointment. Eventually, he started
to lick the floor. He was drooling and leaving long, wet saliva streaks. A
detailed history revealed that Jasper always had a “grumbling” stomach. The
owner also thought he ate a lot and defecated a lot—more than the three other
Coonhounds she had—and that his stools were not normal but were much
softer and not formed, like pudding.
There was a concern that a medical issue might be at the root of his
problem. Over the next couple of weeks and months, several interventions
were tried, including a special diet to rule out a possible food allergy, and
Zantac, an antacid, to help with his stomach issues. After two weeks with no
improvement, an examination of the gastrointestinal tract was performed an
intestinal biopsy samples were obtained. The biopsies showed mild
inflammation of his stomach and small intestines. The veterinary internal medicine
specialist suspected that an unusual neurological disorder involving
focal (in one place) seizures were causing his gastrointestinal problem. When
Jasper was treated with anti-seizure medication, he began to improve. It has
now been two years since the treatment began, and Jasper remains about 70
Is tail-chasing always a compulsive disorder? Tail chasing is another
problem that can look compulsive but might be a medical problem. Rocky
and his owner had their first appointment when he was a five-and-a-halfyear-
old German Shepherd. Rocky had a long history of tail chasing,
beginning at six months of age, and of chewing the top of his tail (where it is
connected to his body) from the age of one. He sometimes developed sores
from biting at his tail. Rocky had a complicated history of allergies,
separation anxiety, and thunderstorm and noise phobias.
During the physical examination, some neurological problems became
evident. Rocky took longer to reposition his foot when it was placed upside
down; he showed twitchiness when his skin was touched from the middle of
his back to his tail, and the owner reported that Rocky showed signs of
discomfort when he defecated. These signs all suggested that the tail-chasing
could be due to a neurological problem, so he was referred to a veterinary
neurologist for further evaluation. A CAT scan showed a bulging vertebral
disc and arthritic changes in his lower spine near his hip area, both of which
resulted in pain. Two weeks after back surgery and pain medication, he
stopped biting at his tail, had good tail movement, and could defecate
How Do We Begin?
Compulsive disorders may look at first like the dog is having fun, but
ultimately they can be frustrating for both the dog and the owner. Figuring
out how to manage them often requires some detective work to identify
possible medical issues that might be contributing. As illustrated with Rocky
and Jasper, some medical issues can be hard to find and may need veterinary
specialists or advanced testing to diagnose them. These problems call for
veterinary intervention first and foremost.
Early intervention is extremely important. A study done by veterinary
behaviorist Dr. Andrew Luescher has shown that the longer a compulsive
disorder continues, the more difficult it is to treat. So for your dog’s sake, do
not think a compulsion will go away on its own over time. Seek help as soon
In all cases, even when the problem is medical, redirecting a dog’s attention
away from the compulsive behavior is vital to managing the problem. Your
timing for redirecting the dog is critical, to avoid accidentally rewarding the
dog for the compulsive behavior. If you wave a toy or a treat at the wrong
time, you may be sending the message to the dog that you are rewarding the
unwanted behavior. One option is to call the dog to you to perform a request,
such as “sit,” and then redirect him with a toy or other object after he is
Another option is to be prepared by safely having the dog on a leash or a
long, light line that you can pick up when your dog is just starting the
behavior. This option decreases the likelihood that you will also give the dog
attention for the behavior—which he may consider to be a reward. Finally,
interrupting the behavior with an abrupt noise such as a knock on a table or
stomping your feet (no yelling!) and then asking for a “sit,” which you
reward, may work for some dogs.
Behavior Modification Tools
Behavior modification, which uses desensitization and counterconditioning can help normal behaviors to return. This
intervention works to diminish the compulsive tendencies by gradually
exposing the dog to the situation that triggered the onset of the compulsive
behavior, while at the same time rewarding a competing and more appropriate
behavior, such as sitting or relaxing in a dog bed.
Harley’s veterinary behaviorist felt he would benefit from a behavior
modification program of desensitization and counterconditioning. She set up
a treatment plan to counter the condition and gradually desensitize him to the
lights and shadows. Rachel started by shining a flashlight onto the ground in
a well-lit room so that there was little difference between the light and dark
parts of the room. At that level, Harley got very tasty treats as long as he kept
his attention on Rachel. When the flashlight was off, the treats went away.
Rachel repeated this frequently, having subsequent sessions in darker and
They also added sessions designed to get Harley used to shadows. The
veterinary behaviorist suggested using shadows from the ceiling fan. Over
time, Rachel was to have the fan run at higher speeds, with the light gradually
providing more contrast. Eventually, Harley’s reaction to these triggers
diminished so that he was less likely to engage in shadow chasing and spend
more time in his normal play behaviors.
Environmental changes, such as decreasing the stressors in the environment
and controlling where the dog displays the compulsive behavior, are helpful.
This includes eliminating shadows and flashing lights or drawing curtains to
prevent sunlight from creating shadows for dogs who chase them. For dogs
who display compulsive behaviors after a stressful event, we suggest owners
start by avoiding those events whenever possible, then eventually work on
desensitizing and counterconditioning the dog to those triggers.
Identify and Treat Medical Issues
Veterinary behaviorists often see cases that at first seem similar but are
actually quite different. The earlier cases of Rocky and Jasper illustrate how a
medical problem can look quite similar to a compulsive disorder. When your
pet has a sudden onset of the problem, especially in middle age, with no
apparent triggers, a full medical workup is the next step. You can’t treat all
the symptoms without an accurate diagnosis.
Identify and Treat Other Behavior Problems
Some cases are combinations of a medical condition and an underlying
behavioral problem. To properly treat the dog, you have to address both the
medical and the behavioral problem.
Dan brought Daisy, a six-year-old Beagle, to see a veterinary behaviorist
because she licked her front leg and created a very large, infected sore. Daisy
was stressed and anxious whenever Dan and his wife left the house. She
would bark and howl and began to chew up the door frame. She licked her
leg while they were gone and also when they were home with her. Daisy’s
history pointed to a behavioral explanation.
However, since Daisy focused her licking on just one leg, a closer look
was needed. Daisy’s skin infection was deep, and X-rays showed that the
infection went down to the bone. Clearly pain and irritation contributed to her
But why did she start? Dan remembered that Daisy’s leg was shaved when
she had blood drawn for a heartworm test a few months before it all began.
This could have irritated her skin and started the process. Why did she
continue? Once a dog starts licking excessively, the irritation can persist and
get worse, causing a deep infection.
In addition to the heartworm test, Daisy’s problem also started when Dan
began working longer hours. So what came first, the separation anxiety or the
lick lesion? It’s hard to say, but this really did not matter for Daisy, because
she needed to have both her medical and her behavioral problems treated at
the same time.
It’s Important to Get the Whole Story
It is also important to recognize and treat other behavior problems that
contribute to overall anxiety and compulsive disorder. For a dog who
develops acral-lick dermatitis (overlicking his front legs) during
separations from his owner, we must also target and treat the underlying
separation anxiety. If tail chasing is elicited by encounters with things the dog
is afraid of, we must teach the dog not to be afraid. An example is a dog who
only chases his tail when unfamiliar people come up to try to pet him,
chasing his tail instead of trying to run away. To successfully treat him, we
need to address his fear of unfamiliar people.
With some patience and perseverance, a dog with a compulsive disorder
can improve and lead a more comfortable life, once we determine the
the underlying cause of the behavior and address it, modify the pet’s
environment, work on desensitization and counterconditioning and add
medication when needed.
Medication Can Play a Role
Only licensed veterinarians can prescribe medications for pets. Medications
that affect serotonin can help decrease the intensity of some compulsive
disorders, so learning new behaviors can begin. The current hypothesis is that
compulsive disorders may be related to serotonin levels in the brain, and in
people with this disorder, medication that alters serotonin levels can be
beneficial; we have utilized this information to treat dogs. Studies by
veterinary behaviorists Drs. Andrew Luescher, Nicholas H. Dodman, and
Kersti Seksel have shown that clomipramine or fluoxetine are beneficial in
dogs who presented with spinning and tail chasing. Other medications
affecting different neurotransmitters have been used but have had limited
No response, or limited response, to a medication in a dog with a suspected
compulsive disorder may suggest that there is a medical component to the
problem. When a medication does help, a pet may continue on medication for
months to years, depending on the nature of the problem, the environment,
and his response to therapy. Withdrawing medication is an extremely gradual
process that should take place over several months, while the dog is
monitored for the return of symptoms.
Avoiding Pitfalls and Staying on Track
As with any aspect of animal behavior, and despite everyone’s best efforts,
there are concerns and misconceptions about treating compulsive disorders
that can derail owners, their pets, and their relationships.
(opposite) lists some of the common misconceptions about treatment. The
key to avoiding and working through them is to keep in contact with your
veterinarian to make changes sooner rather than later.
Another useful tip is to keep a journal of your pet’s behavior changes.
Sometimes when the change is slow, or when the problem is not completely
resolved, it’s hard to see the progress. By keeping track of such changes, like
“He only spins for five minutes instead of ten minutes” or “She can walk by
shadows unless they are very dark,” you can see that there is progress. A 50
percent improvement is by no means a cure, but the problem is only half as
bad as it was when you started. Additionally, the journal helps you identify
where some of the sticking points may be in the treatment plan.
What Did We Say?
A compulsive disorder is a group of behaviors that appear to arise from
normal activities, such as moving, grooming, eating or licking objects,
or vocalizing. But in this case, the behavior occurs at continuously high
levels and it often appears that the dog has no control over the beginning
and the continuation of the behavior.
In some dogs, frustration or conflict (the inability to do what the dog
wants to do) seems to trigger compulsive behavior.
These same behaviors can be due to underlying medical problems.
They can also serve as attention-seeking behaviors or as ways to cope
with another problem behavior or stressor.
It is important to recognize and treat all behavior problems that are
present and that contribute to overall anxiety and to the compulsive
Treatment focuses on avoiding triggers, redirecting the dog’s attention,
teaching new behaviors, and counterconditioning and desensitization.
Medications that enhance serotonin can be useful to help decrease the intensity of the compulsive behavior so that learning new behaviors can
Behavior changes slowly, so patience and constant contact and followup
with your veterinarian are necessary to help your pet get better.
Dog Basic Training
Would be able to adapt to novel tasks. But there was only one way to
find out for sure.
Helen, eager to see how Callie would do with the training, helped me
load her into the car, and the three of us headed to CPT with the head coil to
see Mark work his magic.
Helen entered with Callie, while I placed the head coil on the floor.
Mark looked at it and nodded. “This should be easy. Did you bring
From puppy training, I knew that soft treats are best. You can cut them
up into tiny pieces so the dog doesn’t fill up too quickly. And the dog can
consume them easily without getting distracted by crunching on a hard
biscuit. The only treats I could find around the house were some hot dogs that
had been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. I had no idea how long they’d
been there, but they smelled okay, and Callie loved them. I handed Mark a
baggie full of sliced-up hot dogs.
“First,” he said, “let’s start with the clicker.”
A training clicker is a small device about the size of a USB flash drive
that, unsurprisingly, makes a loud click when pressed. Dogs can hear the
clicker from across the room. The advantage of using one is that it always
makes the same sound, which is not the case with vocal commands. Because
it’s almost impossible to screw up, the clicker is a useful tool for beginners
like me. Its operation is simple: when the dog does something correct, you
click. For this to work, however, you first have to teach the dog that a click
equals a reward. This is classic classical conditioning. Just like Pavlov.
Callie tracked the bag of hot dogs as I handed it to Mark. Then she
dutifully sat at his feet, tail sweeping the floor. Mark clicked and immediately
gave her a piece of hot dog. Callie got even more excited. She could barely
At this point, what Callie was doing was unimportant. Mark
periodically clicked and handed her a reward. He was establishing the
association of each click with a transfer of reward, making it a conditioned
stimulus. It didn’t take long. A dozen click-rewards, and Callie understood
the association. With the meaning of the clicker established, Callie was ready
to learn a behavior. I could immediately see how the clicker was going to
make this easier.
Mark explained another advantage of using the clicker. “We are going
to shape her behavior. Initially, anything Callie does that is close to the
desired behavior will be rewarded. The clicker makes it absolutely clear to
her that she has done something correctly. This way, she won’t get
conditioned to just my voice or your voice.”
The clicker gives instantaneous feedback, making it clear to a dog that
she has done something good without wasting time fumbling for the treats.
Unlike a human, a dog’s memory for what she has just done appears to be
very limited. The longer the interval between the desired behavior and the
subsequent reward, the less likely the dog will make the association. This
phenomenon is called temporal discounting. Research in rats suggests that a
reward given four seconds after a desired behavior is roughly half as effective
as one given immediately. If the handler is deeply involved with the dog,
using hand signals and vocal commands, he might not be able to give a
reward for a while. This is especially true of complex behaviors. The clicker
solves this problem by giving instantaneous feedback.
Mark was beginning to lure Callie into the head coil. Reaching into the
coil with a hot dog in one hand and the clicker in the other, Mark had already
succeeded in getting Callie to place her nose inside. Each time she did so,
Mark clicked, praised her, and gave her a bit of hot dog.
With every click-reward, Mark pulled the food back a little bit, shaping
her behavior gradually. Within ten repetitions, he had Callie crouching in the
coil with her snout poking out the other end. Some gentle pressure on her
rump indicated that she should lie down in the coil. As soon as she did, Mark
clicked and exclaimed, “Good coil!” Callie wagged her tail and licked the hot
dog from his hand.
I couldn’t believe how quickly Mark had gotten Callie where she
needed to be.
“How is the positioning?” he asked.
Callie was lying down in a sphinx position in the coil. Her paws hung
over the near edge. She would need to move back a little bit.
“We’ll want her head in the center.” Mark nudged her back an inch and
“You can shape her behavior at home too,” he said. “I think she’ll do
really well with this.”
A woman walked into CPT with a border collie.
“This is Melissa Cate,” Mark said. “Melissa runs some of our agility
classes at CPT. She’s interested in volunteering her dog for the MRI.”
“Mark told me about the Dog Project.” Pointing to her dog, she said,
“This is McKenzie.”
McKenzie was Melissa’s three-year-old border collie. Melissa had
begun agility competitions a few years earlier with her boxer, Zeke, who had
reached the highest ranks. Zeke was now eight years old and slowing down a
bit, so Melissa had gotten McKenzie as a puppy to keep competing in agility.
They had been going strong ever since.
McKenzie was leggy and lean, about thirty-five pounds, with a long,
thin head that would easily fit in the head coil. She trotted over to me and
stared long and hard. She quickly realized that I was not a herdable animal
and moved on to check out Helen.
Callie zoomed over and assumed a play bow with her front legs flat and
her rump in the air, tail wagging like a vibrating string. We let the two dogs
off-leash and they ran around the room. Callie did orbits around McKenzie,
who seemed indifferent to the newbie dog.
It was time for McKenzie’s try with the head coil. With a dog treat,
Melissa had no trouble coaxing her into the coil. Nibbling the food out of
Melissa’s hand, McKenzie appeared unaware of the coil altogether. In agility
competition, the dogs run through a serpentine tunnel, and McKenzie was
completely comfortable in an enclosed space.
After a few minutes, Melissa commanded McKenzie to lie down.
“Platz,” she said, using the German word for “down.” Mark explained that
German words are commonly used in dog training because of the popular
Schutzhund competitions. These began as training programs and tests for
German shepherds but evolved into a full-fledged sport involving tracking,
obedience, and protection phases.
With McKenzie lying down in the head coil, Melissa backed away to
the other side of the room. McKenzie didn’t budge. In fact, she stayed
motionless for a solid minute. When I saw what a well-trained dog like
McKenzie could do, I knew we could really do this. If the dogs would go into
the head coil, they would go into the MRI.
The Scanner Dilemma
H I L E A N D R E W A N D I W E R E pretty sure we could figure out how to
scan a dog’s brain, we had neglected to consider a minor, though
important, detail: Where? The Dog Project needed a home.
The lab had been captivated with the “big question”—figuring out what
goes on in a dog’s brain. Details like the type of brain scanner, or where to
find it, were just that: details. Up until this point, I hadn’t been concerned.
The best part of being a scientist is when the ideas are coming so fast and
furious that you can’t even write them down. You don’t have time to worry
about details. They just get in the way.
But eventually, we had to confront the practical aspects of pulling this
off. And the first detail was finding an MRI facility that would let us bring
dogs into its scanner.
Yerkes National Primate Research Center, located about a mile from the main
Emory campus was our first choice for MRI scanning. Nestled in a valley
lined with southern pines, Yerkes seemed ideal. It was a short drive from the
lab, so we could easily move our equipment there. And because it was off the
main street, it was also quiet and peaceful. The last thing we wanted was to
scare a potential canine subject with a trip through a busy intersection. From
a dog’s perspective, I imagined Yerkes would look like a walk in the woods.
Yerkes also specialized in the study of animals—primarily monkeys.
Andrew and I congratulated each other on our good fortune. We had come up
with the idea of scanning the brain of a fully awake dog, and one of the
premier facilities for the study of animals turned out to be right in our
backyard. In fact, there are only eight such facilities in the United States.
Yerkes even had an MRI scanner dedicated specifically to the study of
animals. A friend and colleague of mine, Leonard Howell, was director of the
Yerkes Imaging Center and invited us to take a look at how they scan
Although the Yerkes MRI center is unusual in the sense that it was
purposely built for the study of how primate brains function, it is actually not
that unusual to have such a facility at a veterinary school or even at a high tech
veterinarian hospital. Any and all medical diagnostic tests performed on
humans are now also done on animals. The challenge with obtaining an MRI
of an animal, however, is that the subject must remain absolutely still. In a
veterinary setting, this means sedating the animal with medication. But
sedating an animal means that you can no longer study how the brain
Leonard had pioneered a new approach to studying monkeys’ brains.
Instead of sedating the monkeys, he had figured out how to scan their brains
while fully awake. This was a big deal for neuroscientists. When you
administer drugs that render the subject unconscious, you change brain
function in a major way. How this happens is not really understood. While
the unconscious state is interesting for its own sake, most neuroscientists
spend their time trying to figure out how the conscious brain works. Having
conscious subjects, animals or human is critical.
Working with monkeys is a dangerous business. Monkeys are mean.
Not if-you-don’t-give-me-food-I’ll-ignore-you mean. More like if you don’t give
your-face-for-dessert mean. This presents certain logistical problems for
scanning their brains, especially if they are to remain fully awake.
What’s more, because they are closely related to humans, diseases can
pass between the species with ease. For instance, HIV, the virus that causes
AIDS is believed to have originated in African chimpanzees. Monkeys
harbor a strain of the herpes virus that is fatal to humans, which can be
passed along if, for example, one spits on you, which monkeys often do. The
monkeys also have to be protected from us. If humans can catch diseases
from monkeys, the opposite is also true. Monkeys are particularly susceptible
to tuberculosis. For all of these reasons, scientists must take extraordinary
safety precautions to work around monkeys.
Andrew and I made special arrangements to see how Leonard and his
team scanned the brains of fully awake monkeys. After registering at the
security desk, we were escorted through a series of keyed doors and
deposited in a changing room.
“You need to gown up,” Leonard’s assistant instructed. “From this
point forward, everyone must be fully protected. This means gown, face
mask, and eye shield.”
The so-called eye shields covered our faces entirely and were
claustrophobic. They also had a tendency to fog up. The face masks were the
surgical type. The combination of shield and mask made a speech about as
effective as talking into a pillow.
Our first stop was the training lab. Three oven-sized stainless steel
boxes lined one wall. They resembled small refrigerators, but the hasp-type
handle suggested something akin to a pottery kiln.
“These are the training boxes,” the assistant said. Opening one revealed
a sterile interior with white enameled walls and a cubby for devices allowing
tubes and wires to snake out to various pieces of monitoring equipment.
On the other side of the room sat an upright tube constructed from PVC
plumbing material. A foot in diameter and three feet tall, the top end was
capped with clear Plexiglas. A four-inch slot was cut in the center of the cap,
and a plastic shelf sat below the slot.
The assistant explained, “This is the restraint device. The monkey has a
collar around its neck that fits into the slot. With its head poking through, it
rests its chin on the shelf.”
Andrew pointed to a pair of hoses that were attached to the bottom of
the device. “What are these for?”
Pushing the resulting image out of my mind, I asked, “How do you get
the monkeys to go in there?”
The assistant pointed to a metal rod on the wall. “That affixes to their
collar, and then we can steer them into the device from a safe distance.”
So far, none of this was looking appropriate for the Dog Project. I kept
silent, though, still eager to learn anything that might be useful for us. The
device kept the monkey from escaping, but it wasn’t clear what would keep
its head still.
The assistant pulled a pink block of foam from a shelf.
“This is how we immobilize the head,” he explained. “First, we make a
mold of the monkey’s head, which is then used to make a positive cast with
plaster. From that, we use a gel-type material to make a soft cast, which fits
snugly around its head. We cut holes for the eyes, nose, and mouth. This gets
clamped to the restraint device.”
“And the monkeys cooperate with this?” I asked.
“They learn,” he replied. “We shape their behavior through rewards. It
takes about six months to train a monkey to go into the restraint device.”
“What are the boxes for?” Andrew asked.
“Those are conditioning boxes. Once the monkeys are trained to go into
the restraint device, the whole rig is placed in the box. We then train them
with lights and sounds.”
“Trained for what?” I asked.
“To get addicted to drugs.”
Right. Leonard’s research group was studying the biology of drug
addiction. To understand addiction, you need to look at the whole process,
from the first time somebody uses a drug to the point he becomes addicted.
Because it is unethical, obviously, to get people addicted to drugs, Leonard
uses monkeys as a stand-in.
The assistant continued. “Once they are trained to associate cues with
drugs, we take the whole rig to the MRI scanner so we can see what is going
on in their brains while they are craving drugs. Are you ready to go down to
I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
Because the MRI’s strong magnetic field affects computer equipment, the
control room is partitioned from the main scanner room. When we entered, a
young woman draped in a surgical gown was staring intently at a computer
screen with several brain images.
She was not pleased to have visitors.
“Who are you?” she snapped at me. “Have you had a TB test?”
I honestly couldn’t remember when I had last been tested for
tuberculosis. Fortunately, Andrew distracted her.
“I have!” he announced cheerfully.
Leonard’s assistant explained that we were there to observe MRI scans
of monkeys. The monkeys being scanned that particular day was from a
different research lab. Because they had not gone through Leonard’s
behavioral training, these monkeys had received a heavy dose of sedation.
One monkey, surrounded by three veterinary technicians, was in the scanner
when we entered, attached to monitors that reported vital signs like heart rate,
breathing, and body temperature. Another monkey was on a cart, recovering
from anesthesia. I almost walked right by it, until it started twitching with
muscle spasms as the sedation wore off.
We took the opportunity to explain what we were trying to do with the
Dog Project. The vet techs were not enthusiastic.
“You’re going to have to monitor them,” one said. “Vital signs and core
“How do you do that?” Andrew asked.
“Why would we do that to a dog that isn’t even sedated?” I asked.
“It’s standard operating policy to fully monitor all animals undergoing a
procedure,” she replied.
“But we’re not doing a procedure,” I protested. “The dogs will be
trained to go into the scanner willingly.”
She wasn’t buying it. “Who is going to be with the dogs?”
“Us, the dog trainer, and the owner.”
She shook her head. “I suppose you two are okay because you’re
university employees, but no outside visitors.”
Although it was clear there was no convincing this woman, I pressed
on. “Look, would you volunteer your dog to be in an experiment without
“I suppose not. Even so, you’ll have to convince the review
Andrew and I had seen enough. It surprised me that one of the nation’s
premier animal research facilities wasn’t more encouraging about the Dog
Project. But we were more determined than ever to find the right home for it.
When I got home that night, Callie and Lyra greeted me with unusual
attention. Instead of jumping up and down as they usually did, they sniffed
my feet intently. As I walked through the house they trailed me from a
respectable distance, focused on my feet.
They knew. I had tracked the monkey stink home with me.
Logistical problems aside, I realized there was no way we could do the
scanning at Yerkes with all those monkeys.
What It’s Like to Be a Dog
As with most scientific developments, it started as a series of random
thoughts and inferences that eventually led to an aha moment. While
Newton’s death planted the seed of an idea, it was my own discomfort around
groups of people that helped it grow.
For the past fifteen years, my lab has used brain-scanning technology to
understand how the human reward system works. The main tool that we use
is magnetic resonance imaging or MRI. About the size of a car, an MRI
scanner is pretty much a large tube wrapped in miles of wire. When
electricity is sent through the wire, it creates a powerful magnetic field that
can be used to see inside of a person’s brain. A standard MRI, like what you
would get if you went to a hospital, takes a picture of your brain. Scientists
soon discovered that if you took several pictures of the brain in rapid-fire, you
could see the brain in action. This is called functional MRI, or fMRI, and it
opened the black box of the human mind. With fMRI, we can measure
activity inside the brain while a person is actually doing something, like
reading or doing math or even while experiencing different types of
emotions. This allows scientists to figure out how the brain actually works
(hence the functional in fMRI).
As the leader of a research lab, it is one of my duties to hold an annual
lab party. You would think that this would be an enjoyable activity.
Inevitably it is a source of stress in our household. The dogs don’t help either.
Like me, the dogs were never properly socialized to large groups of
people, something for which I take full blame. Since we don’t have parties
often, it seemed unreasonable to make the dogs learn how to behave in such
situations. Nevertheless, one cannot completely abdicate these social
necessities, as with our once-a-year gathering of lab members.
Ignoring my antipathy, Kat and the girls threw themselves into the
preparations for the annual party. They brought all the chairs out of the
dining room and created a semicircular seating arrangement in the family
room. Nothing unusual about this, presuming that the guests are able adults
who can manage conversation while eating and drinking without tables to
place their food upon. It does not, however, account for dogs either
underfoot, in the case of Callie, or swishing big, fluffy tails around, in the
case of Lyra.
If everyone was a dog person, these parties wouldn’t present a problem.
In recent years, I have certainly become more selective in allowing people to
work in the lab, and this includes my asking whether he or she is a dog
person or, second best, a cat person. But can you really trust someone who
doesn’t have a pet? Despite my best efforts to fill the lab with animal lovers, I
have no control over spouses and partners.
Kat wanted to lock Lyra and Callie in the bedroom when the guests
arrived. The dogs weren’t accustomed to being locked up, so I feigned
ignorance and let them have free run of the party. As guests arrived, Callie
would give a perfunctory woof. Lyra just grinned and wagged her tail
excessively as the people filed in.
I could trust the dog people in the lab to keep an eye on the dogs and
prevent them from swiping food, so I slipped out to help Kat in the kitchen.
She was dishing up the hors d’oeuvres and pouring drinks. The team, while
diverse in terms of background, was predominantly American, with the
exception of one lab member from India. It was at the moment I stepped into
the kitchen when he arrived with his wife.
Their entrance was marked in dramatic fashion by an ear-piercing
“Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee! Eeeeeee!”
I rushed out of the kitchen. My colleague’s wife, wrapped in a lovely
sari had backed herself into a corner, shrieking like a bird at the mere sight
of the dogs.
This behavior baffled Callie, so she paid no further notice to her and
moved on to look for food droppings. Lyra, on the other hand, found these
vocalizations highly stimulating. She tracked right to the sound and starting
jumping up and down and barking in what appeared to me to be a request to
play. But the grimace of terror on the woman’s face indicated no such desire.
I grabbed Lyra by the collar and led her to the bedroom.
“Sorry, girl. You can’t play tonight.”
What did Lyra think was the reason that woman was screaming? If Lyra
were a person, I could have simply asked her. How else could I find out what
was going through her mind?
To truly know what a dog is thinking, you would have to be a dog.
The question of what a dog is thinking is actually an old metaphysical
debate, which has its origins in Descartes’s famous saying cogito ergo sum
—“I think, therefore I am.” Our entire human experience exists solely inside
our heads. Photons may strike our retinas, but it is only through the activity
of our brains that we have the subjective experience of seeing a rainbow or
the sublime beauty of a sunset over the ocean. Does a dog see those things?
Of course. Do they experience them the same way? Absolutely not.
When Lyra was jumping and barking at the woman wrapped in purple,
with a red dot on her forehead, Lyra experienced the same things at a
primitive level that I did. Purple. Red. Screaming. Those are the sensory
primitives. They originate in photons bouncing off dyes, pressure waves in
the air around the woman’s vocal cords. But my brain interprets those events
one way and Lyra’s brain another.
Observing Lyra’s behavior doesn’t tell us what she was thinking. From
past experience, I knew that Lyra barked and jumped in response to different
things. She barks when we’re eating. In that context, a natural assumption
would be that she wants food too. But she also barks after dropping a tennis
ball at my feet. I had no comparable frame of reference for what had attracted
her to the screaming woman that night at the party.
The question of what it is like to be a dog could be approached from
two very different perspectives. The hard approach asks the question: What is
it like for a dog to be a dog? If we could do that, then all the questions about
why a dog behaves the way it does would become clear. The problem with
being a dog, though, is that we would have no language to describe what we
felt. The best we can do is ask the related, but substantially easier question:
What would it be like for us to be a dog?
By imagining ourselves in the skin of another animal, we can recast
questions of behavior into their human equivalent. The question of why Lyra
harassed the party guest becomes: If I were Lyra, why would I bark at that
woman? Framed that way, we can form all sorts of speculations for dog
Many authors have written about the dog mind, and some have even
attempted to answer the types of questions I have posed. I will not review this
vast literature. I will, however, point out that much of it is based on two
potentially flawed assumptions—both stemming from the paradox of getting
into a dog’s mind without actually being a dog.
The first flaw comes from the human tendency to anthropomorphize or
project our own thoughts and feelings onto things that aren’t ourselves. We
can’t help it. Our brains are hardwired to project our thoughts onto other
people. This is called mentalizing, and it is critical for human social
interactions. People are able to interact with each other only because they are
constantly guessing what other people are thinking. The brevity of text
messages, for example, and the fact that we are able to communicate with
less than 140 characters at a time work because people maintain mental
models of each other. The actual linguistic content of most text exchanges is
minimal. And because humans have common elements of culture, we tend to
react in fairly similar ways. For example, if I watch a movie that makes me
sad, I can use my own reaction to intuit that the people sitting around me are
feeling the same way. I could even start a conversation with a complete
stranger based on our shared experience, using my own thoughts as a starting
point. But dogs are not the same as humans, and they certainly don’t have a
shared culture as we do. There is no avoiding the fact that when we observe
dog behavior, we view it through the filter of the human mind. Unfortunately,
much of dog literature says more about the human writer than the dog.
The second flaw is the reliance on wolf behavior to interpret dog
behavior, termed automorphism. While it is true that dogs and wolves share a
common ancestor, that does not mean that 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 protohumans.
Those that stuck around became dogs, and those that stayed away
became modern wolves. Modern wolves behave differently from dogs, and
they have very different social structures. Their brains are different too.
Interpreting dog behavior through the lens of wolf behavior is even worse
than anthropomorphizing: it’s a human anthropomorphizing wolf behavior
and using that flawed impression as an analogy for dog behavior.
Wolf analogies have led to many flawed training strategies based on the
idea that the human must be the “pack leader,” an approach most commonly
associated with Cesar Millan. Unfortunately, there is no scientific basis for
using the wolf’s social structure as a model for the dog-human relationship.
Dogs can’t talk, and we can’t transport ourselves into a dog’s mind to know
what its subjective experience is. Where I see a happy golden retriever
playfully jumping up and down, someone else might see a hungry dog
planning to eat her for dinner. So what can we do to better know a dog’s
Although I hadn’t yet made the connection at the party, I would soon
realize that the solution had been right in front of me all along: brain imaging.
Because all mammalian brains have substantially similar parts, a map of
canine brain activation could be referenced to its human equivalent. For
instance, if we saw activation in the reward center of the dog brain, that could
be interpreted through human experiments that result in similar activity. With
human experiments, we have a reasonably good idea of what happened to
create a particular pattern of brain activation. We know, for example, that
activity in the visual part of the brain can be caused either by photons hitting
the retina or by the person mentally imagining a scene with his eyes closed.
Similarly, if we observed activity in the visual part of a dog’s brain, and the
dog wasn’t looking at anything, we could reasonably assume that it was
forming a mental image of something. Dogs might have imaginations too!
The mapping between the brains of different species is called a functional
homology. It means that a subjective experience like imagination can map
onto both a human brain and a dog brain. The patterns of activity in the two
brains would illustrate how to transform one type of brain into the other.
Philosophers dismiss the question of what it is like to be a dog as
unanswerable, but functional homologies between dog and human brains
could provide the missing link. Although brain imaging wouldn’t tell us what
it is like for a dog to be a dog, it could provide a road map—a brain map—of
what it would be like for a human to be a dog, without the bias of the human
interpreter. If it worked, brain imaging could end up being a canine neural
translator. We could go way beyond the question of why Lyra was being
obnoxious at the party. If we could map our thoughts and feelings onto the
dog brain, we could get right to the heart of the dog-human relationship: Do
dogs love us?
It all comes down to reciprocity. If the dog-human relationship is
predominantly one-sided, with humans projecting their thoughts onto the dog
vacuously staring up at his master in the hopes of receiving a doggie treat,
then the dog is not much better than a big teddy bear—a warm, soft,
But what if the dog reciprocates in the relationship? 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. It would mean that dog-human relationships
belong on the same plane as human-human relationships.
None of these questions can be answered simply by observing dogs’
behavior. They go to the heart of dogs’ subjective experience of the world
and, in particular, their subjective experience of us.
My colleague and his wife didn’t stay long. Even with the dogs locked away
we could hear Lyra barking in the bedroom above the din of the party.
Nobody was surprised when they were the first to say good-bye.
Once they left, I let the dogs out. Lyra ran to the remaining guests and,
in her state of excitement, puked up something foamy and green. The partiers
watched in disgust as Callie darted over to slurp it up.
From the chorus of “Oooh, gross!” it was clear even the animal lovers
were aghast at our dogs’ behavior. An exodus ensued.
And that is why we no longer hold lab parties at our house.
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