Book Review: What It's Like to Be a Dog

| CJ Silvasi

Ever wonder what your dog is thinking? Dr. Gregory Berns has been asked that exact question, so he decided to figure it out in his book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

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Have you ever wondered, “What is my dog thinking?”

Dr. Gregory Berns has been asked that exact question, so he decided to figure it out. In his book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience, Dr. Berns uses his nervous system expertise to explore the minds of dogs and other animals in an attempt to better understand how they think and feel.

The Science

Much of the book covers the efforts of Dr. Berns and his team to train dogs to go into an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine while awake. If you’ve never had an MRI yourself, it’s very loud and you must stay perfectly still while the machine takes pictures of soft tissue.

Unlike an X-ray, MRIs will show doctors your internal organs and how they’re functioning. MRIs can even trace the blood flow to different areas of the brain and let doctors know which part of the brain is active during different activities. Dr. Berns and his team used this technology to see how dogs’ brains were “activated” at different times, getting a better idea what they were thinking and feeling at a given moment.

This process is considered controversial though, since some critics are concerned that the procedure is causing the canine subjects to suffer. However, part of the process Dr. Berns and his team went through while training the dogs to use the machine was to determine which animals would not only feel most comfortable going through the procedure, but also enjoy the process. Dr. Berns says, “Because we don’t restrain the dogs, they are free to leave at any time. Sometimes they do,” so the comfort and safety of the animals is always the top priority.

What Did Dr. Berns Discover?

The book not only details the process of training dogs, but Dr. Berns was also able to expand his experiment to include other animals including dolphins, sea lions, and tigers. These animals had been trained previously in zoos or rescue organizations, so they were accustomed to being around humans and even in clinics.

The breakthrough of the book is something that most pet owners already know: animals experience a wide range of emotions that are similar to human emotions. The tests showed the brains of animals engaging in ways similar to the human brain, so Dr. Berns was able to discern that they feel joy, sadness, love, and more, much like we do. The depth of knowledge this gives us about animals and their spirits can be influential in the way we treat animals going forward. We now know scientifically that animals are complex creatures with feelings, and should be treated and respected as such.

Is the Book Fun to Read?

Dr. Berns manages to simplify the science in an engaging and interesting way. His prose shows his love for dogs and all animals as he approaches them less like test subjects and more like unique individuals. This personal approach makes you excited to hear their stories.

The book takes the time to explain the details of neuroscience and how the brain functions, so you will not only feel like you’ve learned something, but you’ll also better respect the scientific results Dr. Berns uncovers.

That being said, there is a lot of explanation, and it takes the better part of the first half of the book to get into the results. As a complete novice to the world of neuroscience, I found this interesting and felt it gave value to the work being done, but other reviewers on sites like GoodReads found this to cause the book to drag some, but the humor and science makes it well worth the read.

While you may not learn as much about dog personality as you do about neuroscience, Dr. Berns’ book What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience is a great way to learn about how brains work and develop across species. I guarantee by the end of if you’ll see your dog and other animals in a whole new light.


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CJ Silvasi

CJ has always wanted to be a writer. She even threatened to drop out after her first day of kindergarten when they weren’t immediately going to teach her to read and write. Fortunately, she stayed in school, earned her degree in Creative Writing from Christopher Newport University, and now gets to live her best life with her husband, 3 Japanese Chins, and cat writing for AKC Pet Insurance.

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