What's Up, Dog?

September 11, 2017
Jeffrey Kluger for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
HUNGRY EYES Dogs understand that facial expressions can communicate thoughts and feelings.
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A 3-year-old pit-bull mix named Ninja trots into the lab. She sees the MRI, a coffin-like machine. She leaps happily onto the table.

Ninja has been trained to sit still in the MRI. This lets neuroscientist Gregory Berns peer into her brain. He wants to learn more about the canine mind.

“What’s it like to be a dog?” Berns asks. “No one can know with certainty. But I think our dogs are experiencing things very much the way we do.”

TEACHER'S PET Scientist Gregory Berns trained a dog to sit in an MRI machine as it takes pictures of her brain.

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Berns is just one of the many scientists studying the personality of humans’ best friend.

Dog Smarts

Research has found that a dog’s brain is less complex than a human’s brain. But its structure is similar. Berns has used his MRI to study how dogs recognize faces, voices, and words. He has even studied how dogs experience jealousy.

Scientists in Europe tested dogs to see if they can form friendships. Two dogs were put in side-by-side cages. One dog was trained to pull a lever that delivered food to the other. The first dog got nothing. Yet it was happy to pull the lever if the other dog was a playmate. It was less likely to pull the lever for an unknown dog.

True love? One question research hopes to answer: Do our dogs love us as much as we love them?

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One study found that dogs learn faster than 4-year-old humans. Children and dogs were taught to turn a lever to unlock and open a box for a treat. Then the box was changed so that it was always unlocked. The dogs learned to ignore the lever and simply open the lid. The children continued to crank the lever.

Best Friends

What does science say about dogs’ emotional experience? They seem to feel joy. They jump and yip when their owner comes home. “A system has developed in which both species—ours and theirs—attend to each other’s cues,” says scientist Juliane Kaminski.

WAIT TIME Because they’re aware of time passing, dogs know when their owner is due home.

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Ultimately, our curiosity about dogs will always be driven mostly by our love for them. Dogs are like us in their joy, empathy, and curiosity. And when we’re in their presence, we become more like them. We are both a better species for our union.

Assessment: Click here for a printable quiz. Teacher subscribers can find the answer key in this week's Teacher's Guide.

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