Saturday May 30 Science Good News #16. Who’s a good boy?
Updated: Jul 19, 2021
After a week out of town on leave, I returned home and picked up Sammy, our dog, from the kennel. Sammy is a Mexican rescue, and looks, if anything like a Besingi, a dog breed whose name roughly translates to “dog of the bush.” Indeed, when Sammy’s genetics were evaluated genetically (yeah, we are THAT type of dog owner), American Village Dog was the best estimate of her breed. Sammy seemed to be happy to see us, which was a huge understatement. But how do we know for sure? As any dog owner knows, of all of the domesticated animals, the relationship between humans and dogs is unique. We don’t share our homes with most barnyard animals, and if you ever had a cat, well, just suffice it to say, that they don’t particularly care about your feelings. But dogs are different. Consider a recent experiment in which dogs and wolves were both presented with a hot dog in a difficult-to-open container. Regardless of the conditions in which the puzzle was presented to them, the wolves got to the treat first. Now consider the situation when the dog was presented with the puzzle with a human in the room. They slowed down. A lot. The dogs were more interested in interacting with the person, more times than not, than they were with opening the box and getting the prize. So dogs, just like Sammy, certainly appear to like us. But, really, what is happening in their brain? To answer the question, a group of dogs were trained to lie down and remain still inside of an MRI machine. Try doing that with a cat!
Once still, different types of odors were run past the dogs including the smell of their owners. Since dogs sense the world through their noses, much as we sense our world through sight, their response says volumes regarding what they sense to be important. Perhaps it is no big surprise, but the smell of their owners was most dramatic, as the reward center within their brain lit up.
The same thing happened with noises. Friendly and unfriendly noises caused different parts of the dog brain to activate, but no sound activated the award center as much as the sweet sound of their owner's voice.
Dogs brains have evolved to respond to humans. Prior to these studies, the motivation for that bond, at least from the point of view of the dog, was anecdotal at best, but now we know that the bond is physiological. So, who’s man’s best friend? Well, Sammy, recent studies have confirmed it. You are.