Thursday, January 30, 2014

Do Dogs Think Like We Do? You Betcha!

I'm A Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

It is an amazing time to be a dog, and a dog mom (or dad)! Things are just snappin’ in the dog world right now. Tons of books, magazines, and websites are talking about dogs--the genetics of dogs, the physiology of dogs, the evolution of dogs, the training of dogs, you name it.  Now that I’m in the “Dog Biz,” I get tons of dog-themed gifts from friends and family—socks, coffee mugs, t-shirts, and most of all, books.  I am a huge reader—both fiction and non-. I adored Marley and Me, Racing in the Rain, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle; this last one is not a “dog book” per se, but offers a spot-on rendering of the profound, understanding-beyond-words-core of the human/dog relationship. In the past year or so, I’ve begun to focus on non-fiction books about dogs—in particular, the genetics and neuroscience of Canis Lupus Familiaris. For Christmas, my wonderful husband gave me How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, by Greogry Berns, M.D., Ph.D. We both read it in only a few days. It is AWESOME.

Dr. Berns has studied the “reward center” of the human brain for years—what humans like, how we like it, why we sometimes like it too much, and how that information gets processed in our noggins. His work using fMRI, or functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, has shown that the place in the brain that anticipates goodness is called the caudate nucleus, located in oldest part of the brain (some call it the “reptilian brain”)—the basal ganglia. The caudate is active in learning, memory, goal-setting, and social behavior. It allows us to understand that certain actions result in certain outcomes.

Now, Dr. Berns is a true-blue dog lover. And when his dog, Newton, passed away, he began to wonder, Had Newton loved him like he had loved Newton? He thought he had. Newton, a pug, had slept buried in his armpit every night of his life. But how could he know for sure? Could he prove it? So, he launched the Dog Project to try to answer the question. What he found answered much more.

The story of the Dog Project is an amazing one. It’s about a journey, tracing the growing trust, friendship, and love that grew between Dr. Berns and Callie, a Feist that his wife and daughters had adopted from a shelter. At first, Berns didn’t know if he even liked Callie; she wasn’t like any other dog he’d had before. She was skittish and not very affectionate. She was a hunter, chasing down and catching, with glee, various small animals and rodents in the back yard of their home in Atlanta, Georgia. This really upset his young daughters, but what else could Callie do? Her genetics mandated that she hunt, since she had the blood of the Treeing Feist coursing through her veins. (Before this book, I’d never heard about Feists; what a cool, all-American dog!) And, as he found out, she was super smart; it’s not every dog who can learn to lie perfectly still for 10 minutes in a really loud MRI machine while humans take pictures of her brain!  This was a BIG DEAL. No one had ever captured an image of a wide-awake dog brain. The Dog Project team took more than 400! And what they showed proved that a dog’s brain works a lot like a human’s.

When Callie was in the MRI, she and Dr. Berns “talked” to each other. He’d taught Callie two hand signals: “hot dogs” and “no hot dogs.” When he signaled “hot dogs,” he waited several seconds, then gave Callie a small piece of a hot dog. When he signaled “no hot dogs,” he waited, then gave her nothing. He signaled randomly, multiple times. Meanwhile, the MRI was taking photos of Callie’s brain. When Callie saw the “hot dogs” signal, her caudate lit up like wild fire. When she saw the “no hot dogs” signal, her caudate was dark. This meant that Callie understood that the “hot dogs” hand signal meant “hot dogs are coming” and that was a good thing! It meant that she could look into the future and know what her dad was going to do. Dr. Berns describes it this way: “. . .Callie looked at my hand signals and constructed a dog theory of what I was thinking or at least intending. [A] dog theory of mind . . . Callie’s caudate activation was just the first piece of evidence that my intentions had been received, and understood, in her brain” (Berns, 183-4). So what is a theory of mind? Wikipedia defines it this way: “Theory of mind (often abbreviated "ToM") is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one's own.” This just floored me. I’d always marveled at the level to which my dogs understand me; they know when I’m happy, sad, mad, or even pretending to be mad—making my scary “monster” face, “claws” up and growling. They just wag their tails and do the play bow. “Aw, mom! You’re just silly!” they seem to be saying. Thanks to the Dog Project, I now know how their brains allow them to read me like a book.

Callie’s MRI scans also showed activation of mirror neurons, which lets mammals place themselves in each other’s shoes. Berns says, “At a basic scientific level, these neurons seem to play a key role in linking action production with action observation and to allow animals to understand the actions of other members of their species from their own perspective. Many researchers have suggested mirror neurons are the basis of empathy. If this turns out to be true, then mirror neurons not only allow us to simulate the actions of each other from the inside, but they may allow us to feel what someone else feels too” (Berns, 191). When Callie watched her dad reaching for the hot dogs, her motor cortex lit up, although she did not move. Dr. Berns postulated that Callie was mirroring, or mapping the movement of her human’s hand onto her own equivalent—her front leg and paw.  This kind of mirror-mapping has been shown in humans. “In 2010, an fMRI study reported that when people watched silent movies of a dog barking, the parts of the humans’ brains that responded to sounds were activated, even though there was no actual sound. It was like the humans filled in the sound of a dog barking just by observation. But seeing this kind of mirror neuron activity in Callie  . . . meant that the whole dog-human relationship was not just a scam. If dogs had the ability to transform human actions into their own doggie equivalent, then maybe they really did feel what we feel. At least a dog version of it” (Berns, 192-3).

This book is so filled with new information about what and how dogs think, I could go on and on and on. I think I’ll read it again. It is very accessible, putting cutting-edge science into layman’s terms. But more than that, the story of Berns, his family (both humans and dogs), his research team, and the wonderful contributions of the dogs in the Dog Project—McKenzie, Kady, Rocky, Caylin, Huxley, and Tigger—will make you smile, while leaving you wide-eyed with wonder. “The whole purpose of the Dog Project was to understand the dog-human relationship from the dog’s perspective, and the most important thing that we learned was that dogs’ brains show evidence of a theory of mind for humans. This means that they not only pay attention to what we do but to what we think, and they change their behavior based on what they think we’re thinking” (Berns, 211). I can’t wait to find out what else Dr. Berns, Callie, and the gang discover!


Dr. Gregory Berns:

Theory of Mind:

Thanks for visiting!  Michelle Vardeman Martin

To learn more about Camp Bow Wow - Dallas High Five, visit:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Why Blog about Dogs? An Introduction to MotherDogBlog

I'm a Dog Mom. Hear Me Bark.

Dogs are my passion. My business. My daily chuckle. My greatest love. Don't tell my husband. ;-) When I was growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, we had a toy poodle named Fifi. She was a great dog, always patient and kind while I dressed her up in my doll's clothes and rolled her around in a baby carriage. The first dog I could call my very own, however, was Spanky Lee, a male Beagle mix puppy my Dad rescued from the local shelter and brought to me in Austin, where I was attending U.T. in 1984. Hook 'em Horns! Dad had visited the shelter numerous times, looking for just the right dog. He chose Spanky, he said, because while all the other dogs were barking their heads off, Spanky just sat there and looked at him as if to say, "What are you lookin' at?"

Spanky was small, black and brown, with a long body, long tail, somewhat floppy ears,short legs, and an Eddie Munster hairline. Although he grew to be only 20 lbs., he was all attitude, affectionate only to me, a couple of my closest friends, and select family members. He never liked other dogs much and was a trial on walks--barking and growling like a hound of hell. To my chagrin, he bit several of my dates during college, for reasons not clear to me then; but it turned out he had judged their characters well--every one turned out to be a creep. Spanky was such an odd little dog, my best friend named him "Norman," after Norman Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho. I loved him anyway. We were inseparable pals for 21 years; Spanky slipped his mortal coil in August, 2005. I still miss him like hell. I now know that Spanky wasn't "haywire," as my dad affectionately called him, he just wasn't "socialized," as the term is used today. Who knew then that dogs must be taught social skills to be well adapted members of their family and community? I certainly didn't.

We didn't have play dates with other dogs, there were no doggie day care centers, no dog parks. Dogs were dogs, they were either "good" or "bad," and that was that. The concept of "socializing" one's dog is a new one to most people and outside of dog trainers, working dog handlers, and other experts on dog behavior, didn't really come to general awareness until the 2000's. It's only been in the past decade that many have become interested in Canis Lupus Familiaris as a bona fide research subject, spawning whole new industries.

Heidi Ganahl, the founder of my business, Camp Bow Wow, opened her first Doggie Day and Overnight Camp in 2000, in Denver, Colorado. She was ahead of her time, understanding dogs in a way most others did not. Many thought she was crazy: "Let me get this straight. You want to put a lot of dogs, who don't know each other, together into a confined space, and expect them to just get along?" Well, she did, and they did, and there are now more than 100 Camp Bow Wows across the U.S., one of them proudly owned by my husband and me. Caesar Milan founded his Dog Psychology Center in 2002 and The Dog Whisperer launched in 2004. Milan pioneered the idea of "energy" in working with dogs, and using "calm, assertive energy" in our play yards at Camp is key to a happy, healthy, and safe environment for all of our Campers. The domestic dog's genome sequence was completed and published in 2005; as a result, we now know that all modern dogs are descended from a sub-species of the Eurasian Grey Wolf--hence the lupus in Canis Lupus Familiaris. In 2014, no urban center is complete without a variety of dog parks and no respectable U.S. city does not offer a wide variety of dog daycare and boarding facilities. One can find books, research papers, magazines, websites on the genetics of dogs, the physiology of dogs, the evolution of dogs, the training of dogs, the everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-dogs-universe, everywhere.

My husband, Steve, and I opened our own Camp Bow Wow in October, 2012. Located in North Dallas, we're just northeast of the High-5 interchange at I-635 and I-75, off T.I. Blvd. Thus, our name, Camp Bow Wow - Dallas High Five. When we opened, I thought I knew a lot about dogs. After all, I'd been a dog mom for 30 years. This new business was going to be a snap! Boy, was I wrong. I knew only what had been passed down to me as "conventional wisdom" about raising dogs, largely from my father. When I would fret about Spanky, or Logan, or Slick, or Jake, or any other dog I had at any one time, Dad's response was invariably, "Don't worry about it, honey. He's just a dog." But I knew in my bones that wasn't quite the case. I've never known a dog who was "just" a dog.

Dogs are such amazing creatures--every one unique, every one with specialized talents and skills, and with incredibly rich emotional lives. I and true dog lovers have always known this. So how exciting it is to have so much of what we've known in our guts being proven through science these days! Rigorous observation, mass collection of data, and technologies being used in new ways are giving us astounding new insights into our best friends. Steve and I are certified learning junkies and as we soak up all this new information, we apply it not only to our business, but to our own pack at home. I married Steve at 47--my first marriage--so I never had human kids. Instead, I've been a dog mom and am very proud of that fact. It's not easy raising "fur-kids." They are, after all, a different species! Steve and I currently have five of our own, all adopted: Zoe, a Border Collie/Lab mix, age 9; Buster, a Bluetick Coon Hound mix, age 7; Bella, a blue-eyed Catahoula Cur/Sheltie mix, age 4 1/2; Charlie, a wire-haired Chihuahua, age 4; and Capri, a Rat Terrier/Chihuahua mix, age 3. Our Camp, and our home, are wonderful, joyous places--full of barking and romping and running and fetching and swimming and napping. We live in Old Lake Highlands, near White Rock Lake, in Dallas, a neighborhood full of dogs and sporting its very own dog park off Mockingbird Lane, due for a million-dollar revamp this year. We can't wait!

It's an exciting time to be a dog, and a dog parent. It's a whole new world out there. This blog will be my place to share what I've learned about dogs--physically, emotionally, spiritually, practically. I'll share stories, tips, links, and "best reads." It's hard to put into words how much I love my dogs and how rich they have made, and continue to make, my life. But I'm gonna try! I believe that no human life is truly complete without a dog. If you think so too, join in, and share your stories, too!

Thanks for visiting!  Michelle Vardeman Martin

To learn more about Camp Bow Wow - Dallas High Five, visit: