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What It's Like to Be a Dog
And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience
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What is it like to be a dog? A bat? Or a dolphin? To find out, neuroscientist and bestselling author Gregory Berns and his team did something nobody had ever attempted: they trained dogs to go into an MRI scanner — completely awake — so they could figure out what they think and feel. And dogs were just the beginning. In What It’s Like to Be a Dog, Berns takes us into the minds of wild animals: sea lions who can learn to dance, dolphins who can see with sound, and even the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. Berns’s latest scientific breakthroughs prove definitively that animals have feelings very much like we do — a revelation that forces us to reconsider how we think about and treat animals. Written with insight, empathy, and humor, What It’s Like to Be a Dog is the new manifesto for animal liberation of the twenty-first century.
Your dog is a philosopher who judges by the rule of knowing or not knowing; and philosophy, whether in man or beast, is the parent of gentleness.
—SOCRATES (PLATO, THE REPUBLIC)
Until bin Laden was killed, I hadn’t given much thought to animal minds.
It wasn’t bin Laden but Cairo, the dog on the mission, who caught my attention. Cairo was a military working dog who could do amazing things, like jump out of helicopters. His ability to tolerate noisy, chaotic environments gave me an idea that, in retrospect, seemed so obvious that it was strange no one had thought of it before: If dogs could be trained to jump out of helicopters, then surely they could be trained to go into an MRI scanner. And why would I want to do that? To figure out what dogs were thinking, of course.
The timing was serendipitous. I had spent thirty years in science, first training to become a bioengineer, then a physician, and eventually specializing in the use of MRI to study how the human brain makes decisions. My favorite dog—a pug named Newton—had died the previous year, and somewhere in the back of my mind I had been pondering what the dog-human relationship meant. Had Newton loved me in the same way I had loved him? Or had it all been a sham, an innocent duplicity propagated by dogs to act all cute and stuff in exchange for food and shelter?
In Newton’s place, our family had adopted a skinny black terrier mix, whom we named Callie. She was as opposite a pug in appearance as in demeanor. Insecure and high-strung, she tended toward bullying the other dog in the house, a sweet golden retriever who didn’t put up any resistance. But besides Callie’s feistiness, she had another trait that no other dog I had owned had possessed: curiosity. Callie loved to learn new things. The usual dog tricks were a breeze, and Callie soon discovered interesting things about life in a human household. Useful tidbits like how door handles worked. No need to wait for the humans to get into the pantry. Callie figured out that if she rose up on her hind legs, she could use her front paws to pull the handle down and out. She did it with such alacrity that you would have thought she was a capuchin monkey with opposable thumbs. This skill, unfortunately, was a hard-earned one that landed her in the ER with a stomach filled to the brim with who-knew-what.
I needed to give Callie something to do. Why not put her skills to more productive use than finding creative ways to swipe food, such as training her to go into an MRI so I could figure out what she was really thinking?
I sought out the help of Mark Spivak, who ran a local dog-training company called Comprehensive Pet Therapy. Mark was up for the challenge, and we began working through all the little details necessary to train Callie to hold still inside an MRI long enough for us to see how her brain worked. Sedation was out of the question for two reasons. She would have to be completely awake so that we could see how her brain processed things like smells, sounds, and, most importantly, communication from her owner—me. And because we set out to treat her in the same way that we would treat a human participating in an MRI study, she had to be able to leave the scanner whenever she wanted. Like a human, our canine participant would be a volunteer. That meant no restraints.
I built an MRI simulator, which I parked in our living room. We constructed mockups of the “head-coil” that picked up signals from the brain, and Mark and I quickly taught Callie how to shimmy into it. Although the process was mostly trial-and-error, and we hit many speed bumps along the way, it turned out not to be as difficult as we initially thought it would be. With just a few months of training, Callie had graduated from a discarded dog in an animal shelter to the first dog to have her brain scanned voluntarily while fully awake and unrestrained.
Encouraged by our success, we solicited the help of the local dog community to join this groundbreaking project to investigate the workings of the canine mind. Much to my surprise, we had no shortage of volunteers. So many volunteered that Mark and I developed a tryout protocol so we could identify the dogs who would be most likely to succeed in MRI training. Within a year of Callie’s first scan, the team had grown to nearly twenty dogs. To accommodate all these dogs and people, we held MRI practice every Sunday afternoon, alternating weeks between the “A-Team” and “Bravo Company.”
We began with very simple experiments to see how dogs’ brains responded to hand signals that cued the delivery of treats. In humans, it was already known that a key brain structure, called the caudate nucleus, responded in anticipation to things that people liked, such as food, money, and music. So when we discovered that the dog’s caudate reacted similarly to hand signals, in anticipation of the treats, we knew we were on to something important. The dogs took this all in stride as just another fun activity they did with their owners, and their brains responded much as a human’s would to a pleasurable experience. As the dogs became increasingly accustomed to the MRI, we were able to design more complex tasks for them to do. When we presented smells of people and other animals to the dogs, we found that the reward response occurred in the dogs’ brains only for the smells of the people in the household, and not for the smells of the other dogs. Because food wasn’t directly linked to these odors, this was the first hard evidence that dogs might experience something like love for the people in their lives.
The Dog Project soon consumed my life, eclipsing the human work in the lab. Because of its potential to improve the training of military working dogs, the Office of Naval Research began supporting our research, and we expanded the number of dogs in the project as well as the complexity of the tasks they performed in the MRI. Not only was it fun, but I had the feeling that we were on the verge of gaining new insights into the minds of our best friends.
As I learned more about the canine brain, I became convinced we had much in common with dogs at the deepest levels. The same basic structures for emotion could be found in both dog and human. But there was a bigger question here, beyond one of emotions, which I had conveniently suppressed as we had built up the Dog Project.
The question came to the surface at a conference on vegan issues. I had been reluctant to accept the invitation to speak because I wasn’t a vegan, but the organizers assured me that they just wanted to hear what we were learning about the canine mind. Personal eating practices were not on the agenda. That might have been the plan, but it didn’t turn out that way. After my talk on the Dog Project, a fellow speaker accused me of being a “speciesist” because I gave dogs special status, even to the point of feeding them the ground-up flesh of other animals in the form of hot dogs. It was an awkward moment, and I felt duped by the conference organizers.
Was I a speciesist? Probably.
Was that bad? I didn’t know.
Four years into the project, there was no denying that our work had raised a bigger question: If we had evidence that dogs experienced emotions similar to those of humans, what about other animals?
People began asking me whether cats could be trained to go into the MRI, and occasionally about whether pigs might be trainable. I knew that wasn’t likely, and scanning sedated animals didn’t seem ethical or likely to yield much useful information about animal cognition. I was at an impasse: the possibility of studying other animals seemed a fantasy.
The turning point came when Peter Cook joined the lab. Peter had come to the project from Santa Cruz, California, where he had completed his PhD on sea lion memory. He was passionate about figuring out how animals’ minds worked, especially in their natural environments. California sea lions, though, had been stranding in large numbers. Some of the sea lions could be rehabilitated, but others suffered from unremitting seizures and had to be euthanized. Peter arranged for us to get their brains. I never imagined I would be in the business of scanning dead brains, but I was surprised by what we learned about the animals they came from. It was some comfort to know that even in death, these animals could tell us something about the worlds they had inhabited. The sea lions were just the beginning. Using new MRI techniques, we started pushing the boundaries of what we could scan. Other animals. Specimens locked away on museum shelves. And even the brains of animals that were thought to be extinct.
What is it in a human brain that makes a human, or in a dog brain that makes a dog? For centuries, anatomists focused on size. Bigger meant more neural real estate, and the assumption had been that bigger was better. This principle had been taken to apply to the whole brain, where bigger brains were associated with greater intelligence. And it had also been applied to parts of the brain, where the size of specific structures was thought to indicate the importance of the function of that region to the animal. There was some truth to this. Dogs had a large olfactory bulb, indicating the importance of smell in the dog’s world.
But size alone does not explain how brains work. What really matters is how the different parts of the brain are connected to each other. This is the new science of connectomics. Recent advances in MRI have allowed us to examine in exquisite detail the wiring diagram of human brains. If I, or anyone else, were to ever figure out animals’ minds, it was going to come from the analysis of these connections and how they coordinated activity throughout the brain. That was where internal experiences, including emotions, came from.
These were exciting times to be a neuroscientist, and the Dog Project was just the beginning. The deeper I got into the dog brain, the more obsessed I became with learning about other animals. If we could learn about their inner experiences, maybe we could communicate with them better. What if a dog could tell us exactly how she felt? And what would a pig say about a slaughterhouse? What did a whale think about all the noise flooding the ocean from ships and submarines? The inevitable result of these investigations was not just that we were going to realize that the inner worlds of animals are a lot richer than we had imagined, but also that we need to rethink how we treat them.
This is a book about brains, and about the minds of the animals they come from. In academics, such investigations fall under the umbrella of comparative neurobiology. All neuroscience is comparative at some level, but few neuroscientists dig deep and ask why the brains of animals look the way they do and how that relates to their mental experiences. These are hard questions. They get at the heart of what makes us human, and they raise troubling issues about the possibility that we may not be that different from many of the creatures with whom we share the planet.
The book is organized in roughly the sequence in which I branched out from humans to dogs to other animals, but the similarity of brains is the thread binding these adventures together. Over and over, I found structures in the brains of animals that looked to be organized in the same way as the corresponding parts of our own brains. And not only did these parts look the same, but they functioned in the same way.
The relationship between brain structure and cognitive function is complex and frequently depends on the coordination of multiple brain regions. Until recently, it wasn’t possible to describe in detail the interconnectedness of the brain. But this has changed in just the past few years. Advances in neuroimaging and the software used to analyze brain networks have yielded new insights into human brain function, and there is no reason why the same tools can’t be applied to animals’ brains.
These techniques also suggest a way to understand the subjective experiences of other animals. Where structure-function relationships in an animal’s brain are similar to those in our brains, it is likely that the animal is capable of having a similar subjective experience as we do. This, I believe, is the path toward understanding what it’s like to be a dog, or a cat, or potentially any animal.
Dogs figure prominently in several chapters because dogs are familiar to all readers and because I think they are the best research partners. I also venture into the ocean to discover what the minds of our marine relatives are like. There are chapters on the most doglike of marine mammals, sea lions and seals, and a chapter on one of the most mysterious animals on the planet: dolphins. With their great intelligence and sociality, dolphins have intrigued both the public and scientists for decades. But they have long been inscrutable. Now, using new imaging techniques, we are learning how dolphins’ brains are wired and what this means for life underwater. We may soon be able to communicate with each other.
And then there is the Tasmanian tiger, officially known as the thylacine. The “Tassie tiger” was a carnivorous marsupial that looked strikingly like a small wolf. It is believed to have become extinct in 1936, when the last one died in the Hobart Zoo in Australia. But claimed sightings of this mysterious creature continue to this day. I began a quest to find intact thylacine brains to see what I could discover about their inner lives, and ultimately, I located a preserved brain in the vaults of the Smithsonian Institution—one of only four known to exist in the world. I received permission to scan it with the new MRI tools. But that was just the beginning of an odyssey that took me to Australia in search of more brains and to scan the thylacine’s closest living relative, the Tasmanian devil.
The book ends as it begins—with dogs. Although I admit to being an unabashed speciesist, I have come to think of dogs not just as man’s best friend, but as ambassadors to the animal world. They still have enough wolf in them for their brains to tell us something about being a wild animal. The challenge lies in creating a means to communicate with each other. I believe that we should look to their brains. And so, the final chapters are about probing the limits of canine understanding of human language and what that means for the rights not only of dogs, but of all animals.
What It’s Like to Be a Dog
In the early spring of 2014, a dedicated group of volunteers coaxed their dogs into a simulator of an MRI scanner.
While waiting his turn, a big, yellow dog named Zen bounded over to me and lowered his head while raising his butt in the air. He wagged his tail, insisting that I play with him. I obliged Zen’s request and tussled with him. After a few minutes of gentle tumbling, Zen had had enough and demonstrated why his name was so apt. He sat his rump on the floor and, in no particular hurry, let his front paws slide out in front of him. He stared back at me, looking as peaceful and inscrutable as the Sphinx.
I wondered what it was like to be Zen.
Zen was a cross between a yellow Lab and a golden retriever, and he was one of the veterans of the Dog Project. As a puppy, he had been slated to become a service dog, but when he entered adolescence, his handlers thought he was too distractible for assistance duty. He was released from the program to be adopted by his puppy-raiser. By tradition, all the dogs of a litter have names beginning with the same letter. Zen just happened to be born into a litter assigned the letter Z. Whoever named him could not have had any idea of his future personality. Maybe dogs grow into their names, but the fact that his name captured his personality seemed like some kind of karmic coincidence.
A diverse group of dogs and humans filled the practice space. Zen and his fellow service-dog washouts formed a loose grouping on one side of the room. His buddies included Pearl, a compact and energetic golden retriever who had also been released for distractibility. There was Eddie, short for Edmond, another Lab-golden cross, who could have been Zen’s twin but was released for a predisposition to hip dysplasia. Ohana, a pure golden retriever, was slightly less kinetic than Pearl. Kady, a sweet retriever mix, had been released for being too shy. And then there was Big Jack, a phlegmy, one-hundred-pound golden retriever getting on in years, who was happiest when getting a steady supply of hot dogs.
On the other side of the room, Peter Cook, a postdoctoral fellow from Santa Cruz who had studied sea lions, was supervising a second group of dogs who were less humanized than the retrievers. This crew of irrepressible dogs was led by Libby, a liver-brown pit mix with a limp tail who was holding as still as a statue in the chin rest we’d designed to help the dogs keep their heads in position during imaging. Her owner, Claire Pearce, had found Libby wandering on the side of a highway in California. It was only because Claire was an experienced animal trainer that Libby had become socialized enough to be around people. But being around other dogs was another story. They still sent Libby into a fit of barking and lunging. Claire had staked out a corner of the room where she could control Libby and where Libby wouldn’t disturb the other dogs.
Although many of the other humans participating in the Dog Project didn’t like Libby, I was fond of her. She reminded me of Callie, the black terrier mix whom my wife had adopted from the humane society. Even though Callie was emotionally distant, insecure, and had a tendency toward bullying, she was eager to work. She’d been the first dog to train for the MRI, and the bond we had formed during the project was as intense as any I had ever had with a dog.
Zen and his gang of retrievers were great dogs, the kind every child would love to have, but dogs like Libby and Callie were slightly less domesticated, slightly wilder creatures. They seemed like throwbacks to the last ice age, when our prehistoric ancestors bonded with wolves and turned them into dogs. Living with dogs like Libby and Callie meant accepting unpredictability. Whether these differences in personality came from genetics, levels of puppy socialization, or variations in brain function, nobody could say, but I aimed to find out what it was in Zen’s brain that made him Zen, and what made him different from Libby and the other dogs.
The undertaking was not without controversy. Many academics rejected the idea that we could know the mind of an animal, even with modern neuroscience techniques. The crux of the problem was an influential essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Neuroscience, Nagel had said, could never explain the subjective experience of having thoughts and feelings. Even if we knew how a bat’s brain worked, it wouldn’t get us any closer to what it would be like to be a bat. Bats were just too different from humans. Consider sonar. Because humans had no such faculty, we could never imagine what it was like to be a bat using sonar. And forget about flying. According to Nagel, nothing in the bat’s brain could tell us what it was like to fly.
Nagel’s essay cast a long shadow over the interpretation of neuroscience data. Neuroscience dealt with the measurable properties of the brain, but subjective experiences were not so easily quantified. No instrument existed to measure the full experience of smelling a rose or what a dog felt when his owner came home. And the harder we tried to pin down the objective qualities of these experiences, the further we moved away from the unique subjective experience of what they are like. Without the means to quantify the subjective experience, there could be no marriage with neuroscience. According to Nagel, we could deconstruct brains all we wanted, but without the link between subjective and objective, we would never get any closer to knowing what it was like to be an animal. The argument applied to humans, too. No matter what we said or did, there would be no way to fully know what it was like to be someone else without actually being that person. According to this logic, looking in a person’s brain wouldn’t help.
His two examples, flying and echolocation, at first glance do seem very different from human experience. But thrill seekers now regularly don wingsuits and sail through alpine canyons. They look like human bats, and those who dare to take flight can tell us what it is like to fly. Even the echolocation argument falls flat. We all have a nascent ability to sound out a room. Simply by speaking, it is not difficult to make out the differences in size and composition of a bathroom, a dance hall, or a concert auditorium.
When we ask what it’s like to be a bat, or a dog, we are asking about the internal experience of an animal. Call it a mental state. The question is one of internal versus external perspectives. Nagel argued that we couldn’t know what it’s like to be a bat (or another person) without being that individual, because subjective experience is an internal perspective—how an individual feels on the inside—and that is different from how they might describe the feeling to someone else or what another person might observe about them. The description of internal feelings is one way to share experiences with each other, but as Nagel pointed out, they are not the same thing as the experience itself.
But just because we can’t be another human being doesn’t mean we can’t have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be someone else. Language plays an important role, allowing us to communicate and describe stuff to each other, but even language may not be all that necessary for the sharing of experiences. The main reason we can describe events to each other is that humans share the same physical attributes and inhabit the same environments. We’re so similar that language can ride on top of these commonalities, acting as a symbolic shorthand.
These commonalities extend to other animals. We share basic physiological processes necessary for life with many different types of animals, and within the class of mammals, we share even more. We all breathe air. We have four limbs. We sleep. We eat. We reproduce sexually and give birth to live young that nurse for a period of time. And many mammals are highly social. With such physical similarities, the structure of our internal experiences is not likely to be as different as has often been assumed.
These physical domains suggest a way to understand the internal experience of another individual. Instead of trying to answer the big question of what it is like to be a dog, we can be more precise. What is it like for a dog to experience joy? Even more specifically, what is it like for Zen to experience joy? Or what is it like for Libby to refrain from barking at other dogs? Obvious domains in which we could ask questions include perception, emotion, and movement. There are also domains necessary for the maintenance of bodily functions, such as sleep, thirst, and hunger. The sum total of all of these domains constitutes mental experience.
Humans have a few extra dimensions, notably language and symbolic representation. Apart from communicating with each other, language lets us conduct an internal monologue. It rides on top of the other domains, labeling other aspects of experience. We can’t help it. Some have argued that language is so integral to human experience that words change everything. William James, the father of American psychology, wrote that a man is afraid of a bear only because he becomes aware that his heart is beating faster and says to himself, “I’m scared!”
The primacy of language had caused many researchers to abandon the possibility of knowing what an animal experienced. Because a dog can’t say to himself, “I’m scared,” some scientists had even taken to redefining the most studied animal emotion—fear—as a behavioral program that an animal implemented to avoid something painful. This was a step backward toward a Cartesian view of animals as automatons.
Some might think that a scientist should remain agnostic, but the same wait-and-see attitude had dominated the debate about climate change. It is true that much remains unknown about the climate, but at a certain point the evidence becomes too much to ignore, and any rational person will come to the conclusion that the planet is heating up because of human activity. The same is true for the mental lives of animals. As with climate change, there were consequences for denying their existence. Continued agnosticism about animal emotions, or even the degree of consciousness in different animals, had allowed people to exploit them in myriad ways. But this was beginning to change.
Before modern neuroscience techniques became available, the only way to gain access to mental states was by observing behavior, or, in the case of humans, by asking what a person was thinking or experiencing. Both are imperfect measures of mental states. The observation of behavior requires us to make assumptions about what an individual is experiencing internally. This works pretty well with people because of our physical similarities and shared culture, but with animal behavior we have a larger gulf to bridge to their internal states. And what if an animal isn’t doing anything? How can we know what he or she is feeling, if anything at all? These types of questions were at the heart of Nagel’s argument against the possibility of knowing what it was like to be an animal.
There might have been self-serving reasons for scientists to conclude that animals didn’t experience emotions. Scientists had to justify invasive research procedures. But I found such rationalizations self-serving and disingenuous. The inability of animals to label an internal state did not mean they didn’t experience something on the inside akin to what a human would experience under similar circumstances. And I wasn’t the only one to question the status quo. With the benefit of forty years of progress since Nagel’s essay, the pendulum was now swinging in favor of neuroscience. Two recent advances had shown that we could, in fact, use the brain to know what it was like to have mental experiences even in the absence of outward behavior.
In 2006, Adrian Owen, a Cambridge neuroscientist, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brain responses of a twenty-three-year-old woman who was unresponsive after a traffic accident had caused severe brain trauma. By all clinical measures, she was in a vegetative state. Yet, when Owen and his team spoke to her, they observed increased activity in the left frontal cortex, especially to sentences that had ambiguous meanings. Even more remarkably, when the woman was given instructions to imagine herself playing tennis or visiting the rooms of her house, Owen had observed increased activity in the regions of her cortex associated with spatial navigation. Owen’s results were hugely important. They demonstrated that internal subjective experiences could become disconnected from outward behavior, but that brain imaging could reveal the inner side.
- Named one of the "TEN BEST SCIENCE BOOKS OF 2017" by Smithsonian
- Named one of the "Best Books of 2017" by The Bark
- "Groundbreaking research that shows that dog emotions are similar to people's. Training dogs to voluntarily lie still in the MRI brain scanner was a brilliant way to explore the workings of their brains. Dog lovers and neuroscientists should both read this important book."—Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translationand Animals Make us Human
- "In this big-hearted book, Gregory Berns applies cutting-edge science to questions that have never been so timely: How do other animals perceive their worlds? How do they experience emotions? How does their language work? What It's Like to Be a Dog is a delightful, illuminating look at the minds and lives of our fellow creatures."—Susan Casey, author of Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins
- "One of the most delightful things about What It's Like to Be a Dog is the attention Berns pays to each dog's individual quirks."—New Yorker
- "Berns mixes personal stories of dogs and dog lovers with elegant scientific experiments that show the surprising complexity behind many canine daily behaviours: a fun, fascinating and illuminating read."—New Scientist
- "This truly fascinating book shows a profound respect for animals, and one that is broadening our understanding of what it's like to be a dog."—The Bark
- "Berns also peeks into the gray matter of dolphins, sea lions, and Tasmanian devils, bolstering his contention that both four-footed and sea-dwelling mammals think and feel much as we do, a sentiment animal lovers and fans of books by Jane Goodall, E. O. Wilson, and Jeffrey Moussaieff Mason will heartily embrace."—Booklist
- "The author explains that his purpose in writing this book is 'to raise awareness of the mental lives of the animals with whom we share the planet.' In that, he succeeds. An impressive overview of modern neurology and the still-unanswered issues raised by our treatment of our fellow living creatures."—Kirkus Reviews
- "An informed and humane exploration at the frontiers of animal sentience."—The Times (UK)
- "A fascinating journey towards an understanding of what dogs--and their mammalian cousins--might be thinking about us."—John Bradshaw, author of the New York Timesbestsellers Dog Sense and Cat Sense and the forthcoming The Animals Among Us
- "Berns has done it again: woven a compelling story with a scientific revolution. Marvelously written and intellectually engaging, What It's Like to Be a Dog will establish Berns as one of the most skilled neuroscientists of our day, as well as someone with the intuition that understanding other animals will lead to greater insight and knowledge about ourselves."—Dr. Brian Hare, New York Times bestselling author of The Genius of Dogs
- "Gregory Berns is boldly going where no one has gone before, offering a lively, eye-opening peek into his neuroscience kitchen."—Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
- "Dr. Gregory Berns' new book is a fascinating read. Packed with personal stories, What It's Like to Be a Dog clearly lays out just who these amazing beings are, from the inside out. We can now learn what each individual animal wants and needs to have the best life possible in a human-centered world, and what we must do to make sure they do."—Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, author of The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age and Canine Confidential: An Insider's Guide to the Best Lives for Dogs and Us
- On Sale
- Oct 2, 2018
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Basic Books