Darpa Is Reading Dog’s Minds

Dogs are service-members’ best friends. They do all sorts of tasks both for the active-duty guy over there and the medically-retired guy (or gal) over here. Why not read their minds:

U.S. Air Force Military Working Dog Suk waits to begin a day of training and patroling at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.,
U.S. Air Force Military Working Dog Suk waits at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.,

Dogs do it all for the military: sniff for bombs, detect narcotics and rescue hapless humans. But to recruit the best canine squadmates, the Pentagon’s blue-sky researchers are working on a plan to scan their brains — and figure out how dogs think. Belly rubs won’t cut it anymore.

According to a new research solicitation from Darpa, the project — adorably called FIDOS, for “Functional Imaging to Develop Outstanding Service-Dogs” — touts the idea of using magnetic image resonators (or MRIs) to “optimize the selection of ideal service dogs” by scanning their brains to find the smartest candidates. “Real-time neural feedback” will optimize canine training. That adds up to military pooches trained better, faster and — in theory — at a lower cost than current training methods of $20,000, using the old-fashioned methods of discipline-and-reward.

Though it’s still very much in the research stage, the plan owes many of its underpinnings to several recent discoveries about the brains of our canine friends.

Last year, Emory University neuroscientist Greg Berns and his colleagues trained dogs to sit unrestrained inside an MRI machine, shown hand signals associated with a food reward, and then scanned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers noticed increased brain activity in the dogs’ ventral caudate, a region of the brain associated with the neurotransmitter dopamine.

I imagine “reading” a dog’s mind would go something like: where is my food?, need to scratch, bathroom!, food, hungry over here, gotta scratch, more scratch, oh what is that smell?, food, need me some food, bathroom, a female dog?, food, food, need to scratch!

In other pooch news, a blind Husky named Gonzo and his brother Poncho are still out there mushing. And Lennox, a boxer plagued with cancer, gets one last meal.