Newest neuroscience research shows that dog breeds are different not only in terms of their size, shape, and fur. They literally have different brains. Through the process of selective breeding, humans have altered the brain circuitry of their companions.
To understand the psychology of a dog, we need to take a closer look at his roots. Since humans domesticated dogs 15 000 years ago, our pupils came a long way. We reshaped a wolf into a variety of different breeds. Along with the outside look, we also transformed the inner, neural anatomy of a dog. A team of researchers led by Erin Hecht conducted MRI scans of 63 dogs from 33 different pedigree. They identified clearly visible anatomical alterations between breeds. These differences reflected dog specializations. For example, the dogs specialized in herding had thicker gray matter in brain areas linked to social interaction and pack behavior.
The research team had identified five main neural networks corresponding with different dog specializations:
- Network 1: Drive and reward
This neural network specializes in reinforcement learning. Dogs from this group respond well to training using either food reward or human social reward. They are superior in sight hunting and companionship.
- Network 2: Olfaction and gustation
Brain areas connected to processing smell and taste are more developed. These dogs excel in scent hunting and are also used by police or for military purposes.
- Network 3: Movement, eye movement and spatial navigation
These dogs can find their away around even the most challenging terrain. They are used for bird flushing and retrieving and sight hunting.
- Network 4: Social action and interaction
These dog’s brains have more developed areas linked to processing acting in a pack and social interaction. They are excellent herders and human companions.
- Network 5, Fear, stress and anxiety
In these dogs’ brains, the regions processing the stress and aggression are more active. These breeds have been trained in sport fighting and hunting.
- Network 6 Olfaction and vision
Brain networks specialized in processing smell and vision are more developed.
These dogs have been used for Police and military purposes, as well as for vermin control and bird retrieving.
Does it mean that some dogs are naturally born for herding, and others for hunting and retrieving?
Not exactly. For a dog to excel in his domain, a mixture of nature and nurture is needed. Erin Hecht, the author of the recent dog brain study, likens this mechanism to human language skills. Thousands of years of human evolution have certainly equipped us with some hard-wired neural adaptations for processing language. However, as scientific studies with language-deprived people proved, the neural adaptations are not enough to use language. Direct exposure to speech and explicit language learning are a must for the linguistic potential to manifest.
Same goes for dogs. Every dog needs proper training to develop his skills. The exposure to specific training in combination with his genetic predispositions will make him excel in his domain. As Hecht points out:
“Border collies are amazing at herding, but they aren’t born knowing how to herd. They have to be exposed to sheep; there is some training involved. Learning plays a crucial role, but there’s clearly something about herding that’s already in their brains when they are born. It’s not innate behavior; it’s a predisposition to learn that behavior.”
As a dog trainer, I feel that the world of science has finally acknowledged what I observed throughout the years of my work with dogs.
For every dog enthusiast, the conclusions are straightforward: with the right training tailored for the dog, one can make the breed’s potential flourish. At the same time, treating all dogs as if they were one kind is doomed to failure. Thanks to the newest scientific interest in canine neuroanatomy, we are now equipped with better tools to understand our pupils’ minds.