The Dog Brain: Part I
Peer into the canine cranium and discover the neuroscience behind dog behavior.
M. Christine Zink, DVM, Ph.D.
In a classic 1959 episode of the television show Lassie, Timmy’s mother, Ruth Martin (played by June Lockhart), is driving a car when one of the tires goes flat. After trying unsuccessfully to change the tire, Ruth and Lassie begin to walk home. Suddenly, Ruth hears a snap! and feels a searing pain. Her leg is caught in a leg-hold trap that the warden had set to catch a marauding cougar. Upon examining the trap, Ruth realizes that she needs a tool to hold the trap open so she can extricate her leg. She turns to Lassie and, with complete confidence, asks the Collie to go home and get a C-clamp. After first returning with a cheese slicer, Lassie eventually figures it out and brings back a C-clamp, allowing Ruth to free her leg and escape a possible cougar attack.
Generations of Lassie fans have chuckled at the thought that Lassie might actually know the names for all of the tools on the Martins’ workbench, but recent studies of the canine brain suggest that some dogs may have a vocabulary of more than 300 words. Maybe it was premature to doubt Lassie’s lexicon.
The canine brain is a remarkable organ. Despite comprising only 0.5 percent of the dog’s body weight, the brain is the most active organ in the body, and greedily consumes 20 percent of the oxygen in the blood. The brain is so soft you could cut it with a butter knife, yet it functions faster and is far more complex than the world’s most powerful computer.
A dog’s brain and spinal cord begin to form just a few days after sperm meets egg, and development continues rapidly throughout the fetal stage and the first year after birth. Initially, the cells in the brain multiply to a number much higher than what’s required, and they make many random connections with each other. Then the brain “remodels” itself in response to the dog’s experiences, retaining certain cells and connections, and losing others.
Although genes drive this remodeling process, environmental factors significantly modify it. Just as the digestive systems of puppies require specific nutrients, the brain requires stimulation, such as touching, holding, hearing and seeing. This, of course, is the basis for puppy socialization. Dogs are smarter, more adaptable, and more sociable with people and other dogs if they’re exposed to a positive environment during brain development.
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