Monday, August 12, 2019

How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist & His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, by Gregory Berns (author), L.J. Ganser (narrator)

Audible Studios, October 2013

Gregory Berns loves dogs. So does the rest of his family, but he's the neuroscientist, He decided he wanted to know if his dogs really loved him, and if he could determine how and why.

This led inevitably to training the newest addition to their family of six (two adults, two daughters, two dogs) a terrier mix they named Callie, to enter an MRI, assume a scannable position, and remain motionless for long enough intervals for useful brain scans.

Just getting the necessary permissions and approvals to bring pet dogs, rather than "purpose-bred dogs," mostly beagles bred only to be lab animals, into the lab or even onto Emory University property, was a challenge. There are good reasons, for many kinds of research, for using purpose-bred animals, including dogs. It's not the best choice in every case, though, and for at least thirty years the trend has been to eliminate research animals altogether whenever there are alternatives that give good results. Real alternatives to animal haven't yet reached to point of making lab animals completely unnecessary, but the need has been dramatically reduced over the course of my working life.

And while this particular research project necessarily involved real dogs, there was no need at all for them to be purpose-bred lab animals. Pet dogs calm enough to be trained for the MRI tests were arguably a better choice, because they would have a more normal relationship with humans, and that's what "the dog project" was all about.

So Berns kept pushing, and inventing work-arounds for the demands of the research office and the legal office, and got his project approved.

Then came figuring out to train his own terrier mix, Callie, and a border collie, McKenzie, to accept the MRI, the noise of the MRI, and keeping still in the correct position for the scans. All this just to get to the proof of concept stage, proving they could do useful MRI scans on animals as different from the normal MRI subjects (humans and other primates) as dogs are.

And it's unexpectedly fun to read this section, before they ever get to the tests they want--can they tell from brain scans whether dogs actually like humans, and not just the fact that we're a reliable source of food and toys?

It's a great account, further enlivened by Callie herself, the Berns family, and the other Berns dogs, both Lyra the Golden retriever they had at the same time as Callie, and the pugs, especially Newton, who preceded them. And yet, that leads to the one part of this book that bothered me.

The other standout personality here besides Callie, is Newton. Pugs are generally happy, affectionate personalities, really great companion dogs. Except, of course, for the fact that their skulls are so short and their faces so flat that often they can't breathe properly. The snorting, the snuffling, the snoring, that many people, including Gregory Berns, think is so cute, is in fact a sign of a dog who is suffering from not breathing properly. It's not fun to breathe that badly. It's exhausting, compromises sleep, is at best uncomfortable and often painful.

This is something that can be avoided, or at least greatly minimized, by being really careful in selecting a breeder to get your dog from. But the Berns family prefers to adopt from shelters, which is good and much to be encouraged--but if you adopt pug or another brachcephalic dog from a shelter or rescue, and you have, like the Berns family, an at least upper middle class income, you should be asking your vet, first thing, whether a soft palette resection is right for your dog. If your dog is one of the dogs of this type that has significant difficulty breathing, and you have the resources, you should be talking to your vet about whether your dog can be helped. It may not be possible in every case, but when, like Gregory Berns, you know that "cute" snorting and snoring is in fact very hard on your dog, you ought to at least talk to your vet about possible help for the problem. And yet Berns, who clearly really loves his dogs, and who tells us that Newton couldn't breathe properly and it was a problem for the poor dog, never mentions talking to the vet about it.

I really do feel that even if Newton couldn't be helped, Berns could have devoted a paragraph to telling people that the snorting and snoring isn't cute, and that if they have the means they should at least talk to their vet about it. He doesn't.

And yet.

This is a really good book about research that any dog lover will love.

I should, in fairness, warn those who need to know that yes, dogs, including Newton and later Lyra, the Golden retriever, do die during the book. But these are the deaths at a reasonable age of dogs who were loved and happy members of their family. They're not awful tragedies that come out of nowhere to smack you in the face for the sake of extracting emotion from you.

And yes, you will love the research and its results.


I bought this audiobook.

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