All Dogs Need a Job
Dogs are living beings with behavioral and emotional needs as well as basic
physical needs. These needs don’t go away because we are busy or distracted.
Dogs can become bored or frustrated when they lack stimulation; they can
also become stressed or overreactive when they have too much to do or too
much of the wrong kind of mental stimulation. Either can lead to problem
Just like people, dogs are individuals with different energy levels, interests,
and physical abilities—all factors that determine what sorts and amounts of
enrichment will be right for any given dog. Dogs need both mental
stimulation and physical exercise. One can make up for the other to a certain
extent, but most dogs need both, so more exercise won’t necessarily fulfill all
a dog’s needs.
Mental stimulation can be provided in many ways. For example, social
interactions with people or animals require mental energy; these can be lowkey
interactions, such as walking together, meeting new individuals, play, or
training. Investigating an environment also requires mental and sometimes
physical energy. Investigating their surroundings is important to dogs. Dogs
do this with their nose by sniffing, with their mouth by chewing or eating,
with their paws by scratching or digging, with their ears by listening, and
with their eyes by looking.
Looking is last on that list for a reason. Dogs are “paws-on” creatures;
preliminary investigations may be visual, but activities that involve direct
contact with a subject of interest are better. Dogs evolved as scavengers and
hunters. When we think of them this way, it makes sense that they have a
hardwired need to check out their environment.
What Does That Mean?
Enrichment: Providing objects or having interactions with your dog
that occupy and stimulate his thinking and/or physical activity. The
overall goal is to help your dog use these activities to dissipate stress
and relieve boredom.
Social enrichment: Providing an animal with opportunities to
interact with people or other animals and to develop social
relationships. Social relationships relieve loneliness, encourage
thinking, and help develop and maintain appropriate social behavior.
Environmental enrichment: Providing new objects and other
variations in the environment that encourage investigation and allow
the animal to have a choice of activities. In some cases,
environmental enrichment also includes enabling the animal to be
alone, if that’s what he wants.
Stimulation: A type of enrichment; stimulation is opportunities for
thinking or physical activity that is available to the dog.
Exercise: The physical activity part of stimulation. Dogs will have
different capacities for exercise, depending on their breed or mix, the
size of the dog, his age, health, temperament, and other
Mental stimulation: The thinking part of stimulation. These might
be activities in which the dog works out a problem hones his social
abilities or physical coordination, or investigates his environment.
Lack of stimulation: Dogs may not experience boredom the way
humans do, but they are affected by a lack of things to do. This
results in an animal with unspent mental and physical energy that
needs an outlet. A dog in this situation will likely be looking for
things to do around the house or will be constantly bugging you for
Overstimulation: Just as there can be too little stimulation, there can
also be too much. People become overwhelmed when they have too
much to deal with; so do dogs. What overstimulates an individual dog
can vary from too many visitors in the home to highly exciting
training classes to loud noises. This can lead to exaggerated reactions
to benign events.
Interactive play: This is a play involving social interaction. The term
is usually used to distinguish solitary play from play with a person or
Too Much, Too Little, or Just Right?
It is important to remember that each dog will need and want different
amounts and types of social and environmental enrichment. Similarly, how
much is enough stimulation and how much is too much will depend on the
individual. Some dogs will crave and excel at complex mental tasks, and
some will prefer running around a lot without having to think too much. You
will be able to tell, based on your dog’s response to different types of
enrichment, what combination works best for him. You can also expect his
needs to change with age.
Jodie grew up with Labrador Retrievers but decided she would like to have
a smaller dog, so she got a Sheltie puppy and named her Emma. Jodie took
Emma to the dog park every day for her to socialize and to run around, but as
Emma matured, she became less and less interested in playing with the other
dogs. She clung to Jodie when they were at the park, and then when they
returned home Emma chased and barked at Jodie’s cat, causing him to hide
under the bed. She would also come up to Jodie while she was on the phone
or working on her computer and bark or paw at her.
In an effort to distract Emma and to give the cat a bit of breathing room,
Jodie started putting Emma out on her balcony, which overlooked the street.
She figured that watching what was going on would be sort of like TV for
Emma. Within a couple of weeks, Emma began reacting violently when she
saw passersby from the balcony, barking, spinning in circles, and jumping on
the patio door and against the railing. Even when Jodie brought her indoors to
stop her from bothering the neighbors, Emma continued to bark, spin, and
jump at the inside of the patio doors for several minutes.
What happened? In this case, the enrichment and stimulation provided were
not appropriate for the dog. Jodie meant well, but Emma was either not
interested in or afraid of the dogs at the dog park. This prevented her not only
from socializing with them but also from running around and exploring the
park. When Jodie and Emma came home, Emma was stressed and still
needed an outlet for her energy, so she sought attention excessively from
Jodie and scared the cat by trying to play too vigorously with him.
Jodie again meant well by offering Emma the balcony as a form of
enrichment. However, as happens with many dogs in similar situations,
Emma began barking either as a territorial alarm (“Alert! There is someone
approaching!”), or in frustration due to the lack of opportunity to interact
with the passersby whom she could see but not reach.
What can we learn from Jodie and Emma? Not all dogs like dog parks. The
time Jodie and Emma spent at the dog park would have been better devoted
to another form of physical and mental stimulation, such as a leash walk
during which Emma could sniff around and take in her surroundings, a
the training session, or a play session with Jodie or a single familiar dog. Emma
should not have been left unsupervised on the balcony; her problem behavior
escalated, possibly due to overstimulation without an appropriate outlet.
When in the house, Emma should have some activity she enjoys to avoid
under-stimulation and to help dissipate any stress or nervous energy. Such an
activity, a food puzzle toy perhaps, would have to be more engaging to her
than the cat.
How to Keep Your Dog Out of Trouble at Home?
some activities that can keep your dog
busy when he is on his own and needs to expend mental and physical energy.
Remember, you can use enrichment to limit boredom, encourage thinking,
and help the animal cope with mild stresses. A variety of toys and also
different types of resting or hiding places can be used to enrich an animal’s
Chew toys, as suggested in the table, are long-lasting edible treats, such as
rawhides, or inedible toys that are filled or smeared with food that the dog
has to work to obtain. Puzzle toys require the dog to think and try different
strategies to obtain a reward. Don’t worry, you don’t have to spend an arm
and a leg on toys or doggie sports classes; there are lots of inexpensive toys
Exercise and mental stimulation may be combined (for example, playing
with other dogs in a park provides both exercise and the opportunity to
practice social skills). Mental stimulation is a way to provide enrichment in
situations in which an animal is confined or otherwise unable to be physically
active. Training a dog to perform a behavior on cue is an example of mental
stimulation because the dog must figure out what is wanted of him.
DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF to the examples Check out
other toys at the local pet supply store or things you have around the house.
Even a few minutes of one-on-one playing or trick training can build you
relationship with your dog and help him settle down at home.
And if you come up with a new trick or game, try it out! Just remember
that it is always important to supervise your dog when you give him a new
type of toy, to be sure he doesn’t tend to consume inedible objects.
“Real” Canine Jobs and Their Dog-Sport Counterparts
Many dog breeds were developed for specific purposes. Some canine jobs,
including working with law enforcement, and the sports that have developed
When you are picking a canine sport for
your dog, there are a few important considerations:
Access to each activity will vary depending on where you live,
sometimes making a particular sport expensive or inconvenient.
Remember to evaluate the methods used by the trainer or training
school, to ensure that they are appropriate.
Sports that are very physically demanding (involving running, jumping,
pulling) also can result in injury to the dog. If your dog is young (under
eighteen months to two years), his bones and joints are still developing
and high-impact activities are not recommended. For older dogs who
have an increased risk of arthritis or who may have other medical
problems, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian before beginning
such training to make sure the activity is safe for your dog.
Any sport involving interaction between the dog and another species
degree of risk to the prey animal, ranging anywhere from mild stress to
injury or death, depending on the activity and how it is performed. The
a dog may also be injured.
Other Canine Sports
Almost any activity you can think of doing with your dog probably already is
(dog surfing!) or could become (insert your idea here) a canine sport.
which begins opposite, isn’t exhaustive. You are limited only by
your own and your dog’s physical abilities, interests, and imagination. Some
An owner with restricted mobility may not be able to take part in all of
these activities, but you may be surprised at the activities accessible to
people with limited mobility or in a wheelchair.
Don’t assume you can’t do it; ask the
the instructor or ask people involved in the sport.
Time commitments vary and may be flexible. Group class schedules are
typically one hour once a week for a few weeks; condensed workshops
may also be offered. Most sports will benefit from a few minutes of
practice at home several times a week. Some require preparation prior to
training sessions (for example, tracking).
Some sports require specialized equipment (such as agility and flyball, limiting practice at home. Some clubs allow them
members facility practice time outside of class hours.
How Do We Begin?
It is not hard to get going on finding just the right way to keep your dog
happy, but it can take some trial and error, so be patient.
Plan Ahead to Fulfill the Dog’s Behavioral Needs
We know that dogs need different types of enrichment and that each dog will
be different in terms of what works for him. Think of your dog’s likes and
dislikes and of his energy level. What do you know your dog likes to do?
Here are some examples of ways to channel doggie interests into acceptable
Does the dog like to chew, or does he steal and shred items? This dog
might enjoy food toys, puzzle toys, or safe recyclable items, such as
cardboard. Food toys are handy in that they are inherently rewarding (food
usually trumps nonfood household items).
Does the dog like to dig? Consider placing a sandbox or dirt box with toys
or treats hidden in it in your yard. But be careful: Avoid the sandbox if your
dog tries to eat sand. (Eating a little dirt is not so bad, as long as it is not
enough to clump.)
Does your dog just seem to enjoy sniffing around outside—and possibly
urine marking on things like trees? Consider taking him out on leash and just
letting him choose the direction for a slow sniff walk, taking his time to
investigate the environment and choose what smells to check out next. This is
an opportunity for a thinking activity that can help many dogs unwind. An
obedient heel position is not necessary; what you want is just a dog who
walks nicely with you and doesn’t pull you down the street.
Does the dog like to retrieve or chase objects? Play fetch or consider a
dog sport such as flying disc, flyball, or tribal. For fetch, you can try
different kinds of thrown objects; it doesn’t always have to be a ball. For
instance, you can play fetch with something with an interesting bounce, such
as a Kong on a rope.
Does your dog love the water? Many dogs enjoy running and swimming in
the water. Consider water fetch or dock jumping, or simply go swimming
with your dog or play fetch at the water’s edge. This is physically and
sometimes also mentally tiring.
Does your dog adore playing with other dogs? Find a fenced area and
some dog friends for him to play with regularly. Like people, most dogs
enjoy spending time with their friends more than they enjoy meeting lots of
new individuals. Some dogs are real social butterflies and get along with
everyone, but most would prefer to spend time with dogs they know.
Consider that if you don’t know the other dog, he may not be friendly (and
might even frighten your dog).
Does your dog really enjoy meeting new people? Seek out more activities
for him to take part in with human friends. You can even teach him tricks to
show off! He could also become certified as a therapy dog to visit elderly, ill,
or disabled persons.
Does your dog just love doing things with you? Does he love training?
Does he have boundless energy? Consider dog sports. A regular class will give you the opportunity to devote
100 percent of your attention to your dog for a relatively short period of time,
and it will be mentally (and maybe physically, depending on the activity)
stimulating and tiring for him. Training for dog sports using reward-based
methods, such as treats and play, can encourage your dog to think and will
strengthen your bond with him. In addition, he will likely come home happy
and exhausted. If you are interested in a particular sport, go watch it in a class
or a competition to see if it interests you and to assess whether your dog will
enjoy it too.
Evaluate Your Dog’s Response
You may think you have found the perfect activity for your dog, only to
discover that he simply isn’t interested or that he becomes overstimulated.
How can you determine whether the activity is a good one for him?
If your dog shows apparent enjoyment during the activity and he gets into
it with gusto, he probably likes it. Check out his body language; is it
consistent with relaxed enjoyment? Make sure that the activity poses little or
no risk of damage to property or injury to the dog. Does your dog seem more
relaxed and satisfied after the activity? How can you tell? When it is over, he
may be ready for a nap. The final telltale sign: your dog’s overall behavior
seems more relaxed and happy, he is happy to interact with you but less
demanding of attention, and he doesn’t seem to be searching for things
(perhaps naughty ones) to do quite as much as before.
What signs will indicate this activity is not right for your dog? He isn’t
interested. Despite your best efforts, he avoids the activity or gives it up
quickly. It may be that you can tweak it to increase his interest; give him an
easier food toy or one with better food in it, or try a different sport or training
facility). But this may not work. Another sign of disinterest is if he performs
the activity in a way that risks damage to property or injury to himself. For
example, some dogs can play with a ball in the house, but some destroy the
furniture in the process; some dogs chew and play with rubber toys without
damaging them, but some bite off and swallow large pieces, sometimes
leading to intestinal obstructions. It’s not right for your dog if he is stressed
or frightened; watch his body language to tell. Is his tail down and his ears
back? Is he panting and looking around anxiously? If your dog becomes
excessively agitated, shows avoidance, or shows aggression to other dogs, to
new people, or to you, it isn’t the activity for him.
Finally, your dog should be interested in the activity but not more reactive
or less able to relax than usual either after the activity or in general. He may
indeed perk up due to the new and fun things in his life, but he should not
appear to be more agitated after the enrichment is introduced. If so, he may
be overstimulated or stressed by it.
Modify the Enrichment Offered and Reevaluate as Needed
If the activities you tried didn’t seem right for your dog, then either try
tweaking activities or switching to something completely different (if he
didn’t like going to class for a dog sport, try giving him food toys and puzzle
toys to work on in the house). Like a lot of things in life, finding the most
the rewarding match will involve some trial and error.
Try New Things
If the activities you have selected seem to be good ones for your dog, don’t
forget that you should still reevaluate them from time to time and try new
activities, in case your dog’s interests change. Many dogs enjoy mild
variation. For example, rotate the type of food or puzzle toys offered, or
occasionally take him to a different spot for a walk or a playdate.
Providing Enrichment Around a Busy Work
How should you manage your dog’s behavioral needs when you have
to go to work every day?
Give your dog special toys or food toys to keep him busy while
you are gone for the day.
Provide enough exercise so that he will be fairly relaxed but not
necessarily exhausted before you leave.
Make sure your dog’s physical needs are met—empty bladder
and bowels, water available, enough food to stave off intense
hunger—until you return.
If you will be gone for a long time, consider using a timed feeder
or getting a dog walker to take your dog out and maybe even to
play with him partway through the day.
Consider using a doggie daycare now and then if your dog
enjoys it and it is convenient and affordable for you.
Schedule a bit of time every day to give your dog your
undivided attention in a context that both of you enjoy. It can be
for a few minutes or a few hours. You will both feel better.
Automatically interpret the destruction of toys as a reason to
withhold them from your dog (unless you fear for his health; for
instance, if he tries to swallow big chunks of his Kong toy). It
means they were useful and enjoyed!
Overexercise your dog to make up for a lack of mental
stimulation or to try to reduce distress when he is alone. This
could lead to bone and joint injuries—and it won’t make up for
the lack of mental stimulation.
Withhold water and all food while you are out all day. Your dog
may misbehave because he is hungry, and water restriction can
have adverse health effects.
Skip training or playing with your dog when you only have a
short time. A little is still better than nothing!
Feel guilty that you aren’t at home enough. Make use of the time
you have with your dog; many dogs don’t even have a home.
Avoiding Pitfalls and Staying on Track
Don’t wait to see evidence of lack of stimulation before offering enrichment.
Undesirable habits can form fast, and they can be hard to change. If you set
up good habits in the form of acceptable outlets for your dog’s behavioral
needs right from the get-go, both you and your dog will be happier.
Sometimes we get busy or our schedule changes and we forget to plan
accordingly for our pets’ enrichment. Life changes may make it necessary to
change the type of enrichment you can offer, so consider what you can do
within the constraints of your schedule and environment.
Dogs sometimes become injured or have illnesses that make it impossible
to provide exercise or other forms of enrichment. In this case, you should
always consider how you can replace a particular activity with a new,
acceptable one. For example, this could mean providing more chew toys or
feeding most meals out of food toys when your dog is physically limited.
What Did We Say?
All dogs require some form of enrichment. If you just want a soft
a creature to look at and to pet occasionally who will not place demands
on your time and won’t affect your schedule much, a dog may not be
right for you.
Dogs are individuals who have behavioral, social, emotional, and
A lack of activity or the wrong kind of activity may result in undesirable
Enrichment will contribute to well-being, reduce problem behaviors, and
enhance your relationship with your dog.
Creating the right enrichment environment will depend on your dog, his
life stage, temperament, and physical abilities, as well as your own
Whether you are at home all day or work ten hours a day, make sure you
provide enrichment. What you choose will depend both on your dog’s needs
and what works best for you and your family.
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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