17 October 2022
Humans and dogs have lived together for 30,000 years, and man’s best friend has only become more popular and beloved. Nearly half of American households have a dog.
Dogs seem to love us, thumping their tails, invading our laps, and stealing our pillows. But unfortunately, we can’t tell what’s happening inside a dog’s head because dogs can’t communicate. However, we’re starting to understand better what’s going on inside the canine skull thanks to recent advancements in brain imaging technology.
It’s true – scientists are studying dog brains. These studies show that not only do dogs seem to love us back, but they also see us as family members. As it turns out, dogs rely more on humans for affection, protection, and everything in between than they do on their kind.
Neuroimaging studies on odor processing in the dog brain provide the most substantial evidence that dogs are hopelessly devoted to humans. In a recent study, Emory University scientists trained dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure their neural responses to the smell of people and dogs. The way dogs process smell provides a lot of insight into social behavior since dogs navigate the world through their noses.
Scientists found that dog owners’ aroma activated the reward center in their brains, known as the caudate nucleus. So despite all the wafting scents, dogs prioritized the smell of humans above anything else.
The results of this study are consistent with other studies on canine neuroimaging. For example, in Budapest, researchers at Eotvos Lorand University studied canine brain activity in response to human and dog sounds, including barks, grunts, and sighs.
Among other surprising findings, the study found that dogs and humans process vocal sounds emotionally. Both species respond to happy sounds by activating their auditory cortex. A unique communication system characterizes the dog-human bond. Further backing up that dogs are physically wired to detect subtle mood changes in their owners.
In the same way that babies interact with their parents, dogs interact with their human caregivers. When dogs are scared or anxious, they run to their owners, just as distressed toddlers run to their parents. The opposite is true for other domesticated animals, such as cats and horses, which will flee when they are scared.
Dogs are the only non-primate animals capable of looking people in the eye. Scientists discovered this about a decade ago when they studied the domestication of wolves, which they thought would share the same trait. Instead, dogs seek eye contact from people but not their biological parents – this is a unique behavior between dogs and humans.
Scientists have also studied the relationship between dogs and humans from the human side. It turns out that people reciprocate dogs’ strong feelings. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital measured brain activity in response to photos of dogs and children. The study was conducted on women who had had dogs and babies in the last two years. Both photos activated brain regions associated with emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing, and social interaction. So both furry and less-furry family members make us happy.
In conclusion, we can rejoice that our pets love us as much as we had hoped. Despite not being full-fledged children, they consider us family. What does that mean to us? They’ll always be our babies.