Review by Alicia Vaughan
It is a widely accepted belief that using dogs in advertisements can increase sales. Using therapy dogs in hospitals can hasten recovery. Having a dog at home can enhance wellbeing. Face it, if you’re a ‘dog person’, dogs just make anything better. But what lies behind this canine-human bond? Using dogs in research not only helps to answer this question but it also inspires an interest in scientific discovery, especially for an animal-loving readership.
In his book How Dogs Love Us, neuroscientist Gregory Berns takes the reader on the journey of his investigation into the canine mind. Callie and McKenzie, the stars of the show, achieve what no one before had thought caninely possible. After tireless training and encouragement, they learn to voluntarily enter an MRI machine and undergo functional scans. Their willingness to do so is vital because any negative emotions may interfere with the experiments, which test their responses to stimuli such as hand signals and odours.
The first experiment, using food treats, is a simple one which studies dogs’ abilities to interpret human hand signals and predict a reward. The ability to do so would imply a capacity to read human intentions. But first, the team must determine if it is possible to analyse a dog’s reward system by MRI and how to proceed. This is followed by another study, testing how dogs perceive the scents of humans and other dogs, both familiar and unfamiliar.
There are several unexpected results along the way that will get the reader thinking. Berns, occasionally taking “scientific licence”, guides the reader through the reasoning process that may help to explain these. The most intriguing findings point to a possible canine theory of mind and the potential for dogs to empathise with humans. This has implications in many areas such as training and ethical treatment. The question is raised as to whether they really should be considered human property.
The story is enriched by Berns’ accounts of dog-human relationships and the importance this holds for himself, his family and colleagues. It is set against the backdrop of the author’s family life, in which their dogs, Callie and Lyra, are highly valued members of the household. (However, their approval rating drops a little when they get into mischief, which, not surprisingly, happens all too often!) Meanwhile Helen, his 12-year-old daughter, is disengaged and struggling with science class. The ‘dog project’, together with encouragement from her father, helps her to discover just how exciting science can be.
Berns’ narration provides insight for the non-specialist reader into the scientific landscape and the nature of research. He fosters an appreciation of the necessary considerations when conducting research, be they logistical, bureaucratic or ethical. Using an interesting and unassuming style, he frames the discussion with concise explanations of scientific methods, controls and common oversights. His explanations of the techniques involved are refreshingly simple and can be easily understood by the layperson. To add context and interest, Berns incorporates the results of other relevant studies, exploring their implications.
Despite the informative quality of the book, I do wonder if the overarching question that it sets out to address is perhaps a little ambitious. While the title and summary are intended to inspire interest in the contents, the implication that these contents will reveal how dogs think and feel may risk creating false expectations. Of course, Berns’ team was the first to study brain activity by MRI in conscious dogs, with some very significant results. However, they have really just scratched the surface of the dog-human relationship. The reader should not expect a definitive, comprehensive answer to the question posed in the title, that is, ‘how do dogs love us?’ Nevertheless, the question is fleshed out scientifically, philosophically and ideologically, and is addressed in part by some novel findings. Furthermore, the emergence of many unanswered questions, from the answering of one question, is the nature of science and Berns does a good job of illustrating this.
I really enjoyed the anecdotal style of the book. The engaging plot line and narrative structure were such that, at times, I felt like I was simply reading a human interest story. The inclusion of photographs to illustrate important concepts and main characters (canine and Homo sapien alike) further enhanced the appeal and readability. I found the language and descriptions easy to understand. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate and enjoy the content. And if you are a scientist, Berns’ infectious passion for research is likely to renew your inspiration and faith in the power of science.
How Dogs Love Us is suitable for anyone with an understanding of high school level science, an inquiring mind and, most importantly, a love of dogs. It is laced with humour and humanity, and is thoroughly entertaining, inspiring and moving- a combination you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a science book!
Alicia is a student at La Trobe University, currently in her final semester of an Arts/Science degree with majors in Chemistry, Japanese and Italian. She is fascinated by the many creative ways in which science can be communicated and the potential these have for public engagement. Outside her studies, Alicia has worked with students to improve their understanding and interest in science, through tutoring and as a peer mentor with the In2Science high school program.