60 Minutes: Dogs Oxytocin, Brain Reward Center & Dognition Tests

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60 Minutes: Smartest Dog in the World

We all think our pets are special, and it turns out that at least dog people may be on to something. For 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper met The Smartest Dog in the World, Chaser, and learned what scientists are discovering about the canine brain.

60 Minutes: Border Collie Chaser

Humans and dogs have lived together for thousands of years. But it has only been recently that science has taken an interest in serious study of dogs. Chaser, a Border Collie, lives with 86-year-old retired psychology professor John Pilley.

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Chaser is considered a child by Pilley, and he puts her first. He has even been teaching her like a parent would a child. They have spent up to five hours a day working together, five days a week, for nine years.

60 Minutes: Dogs Oxytocin, Brain Reward Center & Dognition Tests

How do dog brains work? 60 Minutes shared scientific research that concludes dogs can learn words, and their owners activate the brain reward center. (Hannamariah / Shutterstock.com)

She has the brainpower of a 2-year-old toddler, with three times the vocabulary. She can identify over 1,000 toys by name, including 800 cloth animals and over 100 toy balls. Pilley cataloged the toys and put Chaser through rigorous testing over a three-year period.

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60 Minutes: Dog Learning Language

Chaser was right at least 95% of the time, and Pilley’s results were published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This led to a high profile for the dog, which even included a book deal.

But the learning has continued, and Chaser can even pick out parts of speech, understanding simple sentences. Pilley said that this all began when Chaser had the insight that objects have names.

She learned 40 names in five months, and she became a quick study. Duke University evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare said that this is a key moment in dog research, comparing Chaser’s ability to a child learning a language.

60 Minutes: Dogs Social Inference

This concept is known as Social Inference, and it is something that humans start to develop by age 1. Though it seems like a basic concept, Hare demonstrated that his young son can identify a ball hidden under one of two cups. However, a bonobo ape could not pass the same test.

Bonobos, a genetic relative of humans, cannot do this, so how can dogs do it? A two-year-old Labrador, Sisu, knew the concept of pointing. Brian Hare told 60 Minutes that there did not seem to be much evidence of Inferential Reasoning in dogs until the last decade.

“What’s shocking is that of all the species, it’s dogs that are showing a couple of abilities that are really important that allow humans to develop culture and language,” he said.

60 Minutes: fMRI Scans of Dog Brains

Dogs and humans have spent plenty of time together over the past 15,000 years, with 80 million in America right now, outnumbering children. But why do we know so much about us and relatively little about our four-legged companions?

Emory University physician and neuroscientist Dr Greg Berns has studied human brains for over 20 years, but more recently he has started to become interested in the canine brain. He wanted to know what dogs really think of their humans.

Berns is attempting to find the answer by performing brain scans on dogs using an fMRI machine, but the hard part is to train the dogs to remain completely still, which takes three or four months.

60 Minutes: Dog Brain Reward Center

The dogs have their hearing protected, since the machines are loud and dogs have more sensitive ears than humans do. Test subject Tigger and other dogs responded to the smells of strangers and family members.

But the scent of an owner activated the dog’s Caudate Nucleus, the reward center. It’s the same thing that happens when a human thinks about someone he or she loves, or hears a favorite song. That’s something more than just the knowledge of where your next meal is coming from.

60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper said he was relieved to learn that his dog was not scamming him by pretending to have affection in exchange for room and board. Of course, there are YouTube videos of emotional reunions between dogs and service members that make for some compelling anecdotal evidence as well.

60 Minutes: Dogs Oxytocin & Dognition Tests

Brian Hare had another revelation to share: “When dogs and humans make eye contact, that actually releases…Oxytocin,” the love hormone, in the dog as well as the human, he explained. This is the same hormone that helps mothers and babies bond. See? Playtime and companionship are very important, for both pet and owner.

“When dogs are actually looking at you, they’re essentially hugging you with their eyes,” Hare said. It’s a two-way street, though, because dogs are getting an Oxytocin boost for their hard work of staring. These developments have led Hare to launch the website Dognition, which teaches owners games to test a dog’s abilities.

Tests can measure traits such as communication, empathy, and reasoning. Just like humans have different skills in terms of knowledge, it seems that canines do as well. This almost seems too good to be true for dog owners.

60 Minutes: Can Dogs Forget?

Hare tested Tassie, his mixed breed dog, and learned that he did not rely too much on memory, which is why he would never stay when commanded; he forgot! Hare noted that Tassie did well in communication.

Chaser, meanwhile, is a home run in terms of reasoning and memory, which makes sense given that Border Collies were bred to understand herding patterns. But that does not necessarily mean Chaser is a genius; she just had plenty of training and education.

Cooper told John Pilley that he felt he was not helping his dog live up to her potential, but Pilley seemed to think it is not too late. I definitely want to try the Dognition tests with my dog. What do you think?

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