2 April 2014
I have always loved dogs. Since I turned five, there has been a dog in my home. My relationship with each one has been different, though, and it wasn’t until my dad died in 2005 that I realised just how deeply I could bond with a dog. Cocoa, our Chesapeake Bay Retriever, was my dad’s favourite of all our family dogs. I sensed that she felt his loss, and I felt a sympathy develop between us as we shared our grief and grew out of it.
Then we lost Cocoa in the fall of 2009. I was heartbroken. It was the kind of hole that I could only fill with love for and from another dog. Enter Stella the Great Newfenees and Bookshop Dog.
Those of you who follow her blog will know that Stella and I also share a deep bond. Because of what I learned in those four years with Cocoa after Dad died, and because of the many serious health issues that have arisen with Stella, I’ve spent more time with her than any dog I’ve known. As a result, I’ve become very interested in the human-dog relationship. I know there is a lot more to it than many believe. And I am certain that there is much more that we could learn and share with our dogs, and vice versa, if only we could figure out how.
When I heard about How Dogs Love Us, I had to read it. In it, Berns explains the development of an experiment to determine first whether a functional MRI (fMRI) could be taken to map the responses of an awake dog’s brain to various stimulae and, if successful, what those scans might reveal about the thought processes of dogs and how they correspond to what we know of human responses as revealed by fMRIs of their brains.
The book follows the experiment from its inception, through the many challenges of finding an MRI lab willing to allow dogs to be scanned, training and recruiting of dogs – family pets, designing of tests that would yield visible results, the challenge of scanning non-human subjects using equipment designed for use on humans, and the effects of the project on the people, the dogs and their relationships as preparations proceeded and the results began to accumulate.
Impatient as I was to read about what, exactly, the tests proved or what conclusions the scientists arrived at, the journey Berns takes through the process is also very intriguing. His story illustrates the knowledge gained in going through the process is just as, if not more important than the end result, and he illustrates this with humour and sensitivity.
The results of the fMRIs are very exciting, too. While he is careful to point out that and explain why they cannot be used as absolute proof of how a dog thinks relative to humans, they do expand our understanding of how the dog’s mind works. The fMRIs provide some very interesting and potentially ground-shaking scientific indications which may startle even some dog owners. They could very likely lead to some interesting developments in law surrounding animal rights.
Bottom line: I’m on the right track with Stella and in my conviction that deeper, more mutually rewarding relationships are possible with our dogs. Berns’ research offers compelling indications that this is so. If you love your dog, you will undoubtedly find How Dogs Love Us is an entertaining and satisfying read.