Brain scans of dog candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a stern service training program, a study by finds. The study found that fMRI expanded the ability to identify dogs that would ultimately fail service-dog training to 67 percent, up from about 47 percent without the use of fMRI.
Brain scans of dog candidates to assist people with disabilities can help predict which dogs will fail a rigorous service training program, a study by Emory University finds.
Involving 43 dogs who underwent training at Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) in Santa Rosa, California.
"Data from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) provided a modest, but important, improvement in the ability to identify dogs that were poor candidates," says Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who led the research. "What the brain imaging tells us is not only which dogs are more likely to fail, but why."
All of the dogs in the study undergone a battery of behavioral tests showing that they had a calm temperament before being selected for training. In the fact on calm exteriors, however, some of the dogs showed higher activity in the amygdala -- an area of the brain associated with excitability. These dogs were more likely to break the training program.
"The brain scans may be like getting a dog's mental temperature," Berns says. "You could think of it as a medical test with a normal range for a service dog. And the lifted neural activity that we see in the amygdala of some dogs may be outside of that range, indicating an abnormal value for a successful service dog."
The findings are important, he adds, since the cost of training a service dog variety from $20,000 to $50,000. As many as 70 percents of the animals that start a six-to-nine-month training program have to be released for behavioral reasons.
Golden retrievers, Labradors or crosses between the two are the usual CCI service dog breeds, due to their generally calm and affable natures. After the puppies are weaned, they are adopted by participant puppy raisers for 15 months, before returning to CCI to undergo behavioral tests. Those that pass begin training.
The results found that dogs with stronger activity in the caudate in response to the threat signal despite who gave the signal -- were slightly more likely to successfully complete the service dog training program. However, if a dog had simply more activity in the amygdala in response to the threat signal -- particularly if the signal was given by a stranger -- that increased the likelihood that the dog would fail.
"The ideal service dog is one that is highly activated, but also doesn't get excessively excited or nervous," Berns says. "The two neural regions that we focused on -- the caudate and the amygdala -- seem to differentiate those two traits. Our findings suggest that we may be able to pick up variations in these internal mental states before they get to the level of overt actions."
Berns hopes that the technology may become more refined and have applications for a broader range of working dogs, such as those used to assist the military and police forces.