My dog can heed the command “stay” for a total of about four seconds. And that’s on a good day. So when I read the terms of the recent study in the journal Science — dogs had to lie still for eight minutes straight in a clanging MRI machine, while wearing earphones and a radiofrequency coil — I had to talk to the researchers.
Márta Gácsi is a behaviorial scientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. She was responsible for training the dogs, and is a co-author of the study by the Family Dog Project that’s exploring how dogs understand and process human language.
“The dogs were not restrained in any way,” Gácsi said. “We didn’t apply any restraints to keep the dogs in the desired position or in the scanner. They could leave the tube and the scanner at any time they wanted to — and sometimes they did.”
The dogs also had to be fully awake inside the scanner, she explained, as their owners talked to them. They could not be drugged. That would have thrown off the results. Oh, and they also had to learn to wear headphones and a radiofrequency coil, and lie still with their head between their paws.
My dog would never do that. Actually, Gácsi insisted, the easy part was teaching them to wear headphones. It’s no different than training a puppy to wear a collar, she said.
Still, some of the best-trained dogs — those you might think would be ideal for this study — could not stay still for more than a minute or two, and had to be kicked out of the experiment.
“They couldn’t stand this,” Gácsi said. The dogs were so attuned to the trainers’ wishes, they couldn’t relax. ” ‘O.K., I’ve been lying for two minutes,’ ” these smart, …