Sit, down, stay. My dog can do that, you might be thinking. But imagine asking your dog to successfully perform that command series for eight full minutes in a cramped, loud space. Not so easy, now, right?
More and more, researchers are conducting studies on the cognitive abilities of dogs, trying to determine how they think and feel. Doing this requires the scientists to monitor brain activity from MRI scans, meaning that the canine participants must be trained to lie still in a loud MRI machine wearing headphones (to protect their ears from the machine noises) and a radiofrequency coil.
Because the scans are measuring brain activity, the dogs can’t be sedated or even in an excitable mood (e.g., looking at a treat in front of them). They had to be unrestrained and relaxed in the machine for an accurate reading.
Intrigued by the concept, NPR reporter Martha Ann Overland contacted the researchers of a recent study on how dogs process language (read an article on that study here) to find out how they trained the dogs to participate.
Overland spoke to Márta Gácsia from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, who explained that the training process comprises a full conditioning process of giving the dogs treats and praise for a period of time before the actual scans to help the dogs think the scanner was a fun place to be. “We tricked our dogs that we are happy to be there," Gácsia said. "So they wanted to be part of the party."
Greg Berns at Emory University, who completed a similar study in 2014, turned to Mark Spivak to help him train his study participants. “Without proper conditioning and training, the dogs would just run from the MRI,” Spivack said. He works with the dogs using treats in a MRI model, using treats and praise to help them get accustomed to lying still in the equipment.
Gácsia points out that certain dogs aren’t up to the training, and those are removed from the study. But as you can see in a video of Spivack’s MRI training program, it’s a skill that many well-trained dogs can achieve.
See it here: