SANDY SPRINGS, GA (CBS46) - Many of us with dogs as pets often wonder, do they really understand what we say and feel?
Research in Atlanta is looking to prove dogs may be more like humans and even smarter than we think.
Dr. Greg Berns at Emory University says dogs really understand what we say to them and his one-of-a-kind dog project looks to prove it.
"The more I study dogs and the more I study their brains, the more similarities I see to human brains," said Dr. Berns. "They are intelligent, they are emotional, and they've been ignored in terms of research and understanding how they think. So, we are all interested in trying to develop ways to understand how their minds work."
Dr. Berns does that in a humane, painless, non-invasive way -- no needles, straps or anesthesia.
It's a test many of us have had ourselves; an MRI.
They've already found dogs respond to reward and smell, noting where in the brain they have positive or negative signals.
"So, we've done experiments where we present odors to the dogs and these are things like the scent of other people in their house, the scent of other dogs in the house, as well as strange people and strange dogs," said Dr. Berns. "And so what we found in that experiment is that the dogs reward processing center, so basically the part of the brain that is kind of the positive anticipation of things responds particularly strongly to the scent of their human."
People and their dogs get evaluated for participation at a testing center in Sandy Springs. It's basically a hiring process.
"They need to be diligent with their homework. They need to be diligent with their rapport with their dogs and the right rapport," said Dr. Berns.
The dogs must master a series of training sessions, which includes climbing steps, walking up and down narrow pathways, entering and remaining in an enclosure and loud sounds of various pitches.
Then, they can step into an MRI where they must sit absolutely still for up to 20 minutes at a time.
Dr. Berns hopes to identify which dogs are ideal for service like seeing eye dogs, bomb sniffing dogs and military dogs. He also plans to study dogs' cognitive decline, hoping to shed light on diseases like Alzheimer's.
But the dog project also may benefit everyday pets such as those with anxiety and social problems.
"Currently, we are trying to understand what dogs perceive about the world. You know, what do they see when they see humans, dogs, other animals, cars, etc. So the idea is, at least in humans and even in certain chimpanzees and monkeys, there are parts of the brain specialized for visual processing of all of these things and so what we are trying to determine is whether a dog has that same kind of specialization. Nobody knows." said Dr. Berns. "Understanding how that dog's brain works can only help that dog be happier and more productive in its role serving man."
Right now, the project studies dogs between 2 and 9 years old.