Scientific research studies to better understand the inner workings of the canine brain continue to progress, with the goal of identifying brain responses that might be unique to assistance dogs that serve people with disabilities. A state-of-the-art study that focused on the reward center of the canine brain was performed by a consortium of canine research centers from Emory University, Georgia Tech, the University of California, Berkeley, Dog Star Technologies and the non-profit Canine Companions for Independence.

Over the course of two years, 50 assistance dogs in the final stages of formal training were taught, using positive reinforcement, to lie still in a dog-friendly functional MRI (fMRI) machine. Training began with an MRI simulator, complete with the bangs and clangs of an MRI machine played on a CD. After successfully learning to lie still in an MRI, each dog was taken to UC Berkeley to have the real fMRI done. The dogs participating in the study wore earplugs, were unsedated and unrestrained for the short duration in the MRI. 

Building on previous research conducted by Gregory Berns of Emory University with pet dogs, including four dogs that were temperamentally unfit to work as assistance dogs, a fascinating pattern began to emerge. 

“Specially bred assistance dogs stood apart from the pet dogs in one interesting measurement — the fMRI determined that the reward center of the brain acted differently when our dogs were rewarded by their familiar handler than by a stranger,” says Brenda Kennedy, Canine Companions director of health and research. “Pet dogs didn’t have the same patterns of brain response.”

Dogs participating in this study were scanned in two scenarios: While receiving hand signals for treat or no-treat by their handler or trainer and while receiving hand signals for treat or no-treat from a stranger. The research team aimed to use fMRI to identify differences in brain activation in these scenarios that could provide insights into why some individuals are more likely to succeed as assistance dogs, whereas others fail.  

This study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and will provide greater insight into canine cognition, and, specifically, the unique behavior of specially bred and trained assistance dogs.