Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog, And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

By Gregory Berns

From the title, I first expected this to be a story told from a dog’s point of view, but it’s not. What its like to be a dogRead the subtitle, “Animal Neuroscience.” This book is about studying dog brains and other animals with MRI scanners. This allowed researchers to measure the strength of connections within the brain.

This book was very interesting, although a bit challenging. Diagrams of the various animal brains would make these studies easier to understand. But Berns discusses brain terminology in a very easy to understand. I found his stories of how he trained dogs to stay inside an MRI without moving fascinating.

Animal Projects

The Dog Project

Dogs were never anaesthetized. They learned to rest their chin on a bar and stay still while the MRI made studied their brains. Berns also taught the dogs to touch a target with their nose while inside the MRI. He also tested their reactions to different images or objects and seeing their owner. Although he measured their brain activity during these tests, was it thinking?

Berns also studied how dogs learned the names of toys. Another study involved dogs preferred method of reward, food or praise. Some studies did not involve MRI scans. But many tried to find their thought processes and motivation.

One of the unique characteristics of the Dog Project was their concern about the dog’s welfare. The project did not harm or restrain the dogs and allowed the dog’s a choice on if they wanted to enter the MRI that day.

Berns says he gave the dogs a choice because of his medical school training. Decades ago, I was a technician at a medical school where I had to help during the dog physiology lab. Bern’s experience was exactly like mine, similar setup, tests, and surgery on a live animal.  At least I was not involved in killing the dog at the end of the lab, as he was. He wished he had boycotted the lab, and over the years, many students did. The professors said that the dogs were from a pound and would die  anyway. And wasn’t it better for medical students to practice on a dog before they work on a person? This line of thinking has changed over the years, and now these labs only involve simulations.

Other Animals

One of the studies that I especially liked involved sea lions. Fish that ate the phytoplankton Pseudo-nitzschia would have high levels of domoic acid. Sea lions that ate these fish bio-accumulated domoic acid.  High levels of domoic acid in sea lions affected their memory of where to find food. The sea lions then either starved or had seizures from the high doses of domoic acid. MRIs showed similar patterns for sea lions that had seizures as humans with epilepsy.

Another study involved Ronan, a sea lion that learned to grove to musical beats. He bobbed his head the way humans tap their feet to a musical.

Other studies involved studying the brains of living, dead, and extinct animals. These included dolphins, Tasmanian devils, and the extinct thylacine.


The last chapter was the most interesting. Here Berns discusses the legalities of pain experienced by animals. In the U.S., there is no ban on pain and researchers only need to categorize the level of pain in dogs but not rats or mice.

Studies have shown that many, if not most animals, are sentient beings. They are aware of their internal states, and show self-awareness, like people. Dogs may one day have rights as sentient beings and no longer considered as property. In November of 2013,  a divorce case contested the ownership of a dog. The judge decided to hold a custody hearing for the dog, but the couple settled and the hearing didn’t occur. It’s unique that a judge would even think to hold a custody hearing for a pet.

Berns favors the idea of animal advocates to argue cases in favor of the animal’s interest. Although the court still views animals as property, that way of thinking is changing. Neuroscience will help us understand animals better and may assist in their advocacy.

I rate this book as a 4.5 out of 5 stars.

This is a Wordless Wednesday blog hop. Please comment on mine and other posts.Blogpaws wordless Wednesday


20 thoughts on “Book Review: What It’s Like to Be a Dog, And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

  1. What a fascinating book. I definitely believe animals are sentient beings and enjoy reading research like this about neuroscience. So relieved he does not harm the dogs participating in his studies now. Hopefully advocacy and respect will grow with education.

  2. Very interesting how they were able to keep the dogs calm for the MRI. I’m not sure I could handle reading something so technical right now. I have a blog post I want to write, but it involves me reading some veterinary research papers…

  3. thanks for sharing, especially about advocating for recognition of animal pain. Also, I wonder what kind of amazing dog treats those dogs who stayed in the mri machine must have gotten!

  4. Neuroscience is an extremely interesting field. Dr. Joe Dispenza studies the human brain/heart relationship and how it affects our health…I would love to see a new study for dogs combining the brain and heart health.

  5. What an interesting post. I love the idea of animals someday becoming sentient beings for all purposes — most animals I know are more aware of their feelings than people sadly. We need to work harder as a community to make this change happen. Love seeing this type of testing being done so we can see and learn more about how our dogs think.

  6. Sounds like a cool book! I love that the dogs had the choice to participate or not, and that they used positive reinforcement. Too many animal studies are done with a complete lack of regard for the animal and their wellbeing. I actually have a friend who is lobbying in DC to stop testing on dogs, especially testing that involves pain.

  7. This looks like a fantastic book. I attended a talk by an animal rights advocate this year and was heartened to hear that this movement is gaining ground – however slowly.

  8. I had never heard about doctors having to practice surgery on dogs! I’m so glad that we’ve moved beyond that in today’s society. It’s a step in the right direction, and books like this one will certainly help.

  9. Interesting post. I was wondering if you were going to mention harm to animals and you did. It’s awful some of the things that animals are forced to go through. I was happy to read that some of this is changing in science. Yes I believe dogs (and cats) can be trained without harm and still be able to study the brain or behaviors. I don’t need science or a degree to know they are sentimental beings…they are all selfless loving beings. 🙂

Leave a Comment