• Noël Zia Lee
  • They do love us!

Like many dog owners, I am a sucker for books about dogs, though not novels or memoirs about saintly dogs who teach their humans Important Lessons about life and loyalty and then die tragic deaths. I dislike these books for two reasons. First, they make me consider the mortality of Abby, my current dog, even though, at four, she’s practically still a puppy. Second, none of those book-dogs (Marley, Old Yeller, etc.) can compare to Abby or to Trixie, the yellow Lab who was part of my family during my adolescence and possessed the kindest, most gentle soul I’ve ever known. But then again, I think most dog people feel this way. That’s why whenever other people start telling us stories about their dogs, we change the subject back to our own as soon as possible and pull out the iPhone photos. And why we’re so much fun to have at parties.

No, the dog books I enjoy are the ones that explain the biology of dogs, how they evolved away from wolves to become Man’s Best Friend, how their minds work (dogs are the only animals who respond when a human points at an object), and about their amazing sensory organs (for instance, their hearing range goes up to 60,000 Hz while humans’ bombs out at a mere 20,000, and they have a second smelling organ behind the nose especially for processing the scents of other dogs; each dog, by the way, has a unique scent, produced by a gland beneath his or her tail, which is why dogs are always sniffing one another’s butts). Some of the best are Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, What Dogs Know by Stanley Coren, and What’s a Dog For? by John Homans. And now add How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns to the list.

Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, where he and his lab group use data collected from fMRI (functional MRI) scans to study different forms of decision making and how “sacred values” affect human behavior. He is also a serious dog person; at any given time, his family includes at least two canines. Living in such close proximity with dogs made him wonder about their thoughts and motivations. More specifically, did the dogs reciprocate his feelings for them? Did they truly love him, or did they consider him a mere food dispenser?

  • Houghton Mifflin

The obvious answer seemed to be using the MRI to scan their brains. But the MRI scanner is loud and induces claustrophobia, even in adult humans who know how to lie still. It seemed impossible for dogs, with their supersensitive hearing and tendency to wriggle. Sedation was not an option: the dogs needed to be conscious for Berns and his colleagues to collect any usable data.

But then Berns saw photos of dogs who worked with Navy SEALS, who had been trained to ride in helicopters, which are nearly as loud as MRI machines, and even do a parachute jump while strapped to a human. He started to believe that performing an fMRI scan on a dog wasn’t as far-fetched as he first thought.

His first subject was one of his own dogs, a small, black feist named Callie who, he had noticed during their obedience classes together, would do anything for a little piece of hot dog. Within a few months, with the help of many, many hot dogs, Callie was able to wear a pair of sound-blocking earmuffs without shaking them off, climb into an MRI machine, and lie still in sphinx position long enough for Berns and his team to take a scan of her brain and find out a little bit of what she was thinking.

The payoff, at the end, is as interesting as you’d hope. Short answer: your dog does love you, and not just because you feed her and take her for walks. (Hooray!) Dogs primarily think about what their humans are thinking about. But Berns’s theory as to why dogs and humans have become so mutually dependent is not only fascinating, it makes you believe there is at least a little bit of true goodness in nature.

Some of the best parts of How Dogs Love Us, though, are about the questions, not the answers. In his account of the slow, meticulous, day-to-day process of creating a scientific study, Berns has produced one of the best accounts of how science is “done.” There are scenes of debates among the scientists who work in his lab, descriptions of different types of experiments (surprisingly, Berns doesn’t believe that following the scientific method always produces the most interesting results), and explanations of how experiments and studies get paid for and the legal and ethical ramifications of doing fMRI scans on a dog who also happens to be a pet. He also gets in a few good digs, at the expense of his daughter’s seventh-grade science teacher, at the way science is taught in schools, by rote memorization instead of in the inquisitive, trial-and-error spirit of professional scientists.

Berns is an excellent writer. His explanations of the scientific thinking behind the Dog Project (as he calls his experiment) are crisp and clear and accessible to a nonscientist without being condescending. He intersperses the lab scenes with stories of his and his family’s relationships with their dogs. A warning: Since this is not just a book about the Dog in general but also about a few particular dogs, there are deaths and they are sad. That’s the worst part of the human-dog pact: that we almost always outlive them and grieve for them.

“Humans,” Berns writes, “even with our powerful brains and capacity for abstract thought, are still slaves to our emotions, which dogs will pick up on and resonate with. And the most powerful emotion of all is love.”

Aimee Levitt writes about books on Fridays.