Understanding dogs’ perceptual experience of both conspecifics and humans is important to understand how dogs evolved and the nature of their relationships with humans and other dogs. Olfaction is believed to be dogs’ most powerful and perhaps important sense and an obvious place to begin for the study of social cognition of conspecifics and humans. We used fMRI in a cohort of dogs (N = 12) that had been trained to remain motionless while unsedated and unrestrained in the MRI. By presenting scents from humans and conspecifics, we aimed to identify the dimensions of dogs’ responses to salient biological odors – whether they are based on species (dog or human), familiarity, or a specific combination of factors. We focused our analysis on the dog's caudate nucleus because of its well-known association with positive expectations and because of its clearly defined anatomical location. We hypothesized that if dogs’ primary association to reward, whether it is based on food or social bonds, is to humans, then the human scents would activate the caudate more than the conspecific scents. Conversely, if the smell of conspecifics activated the caudate more than the smell of humans, dogs’ association to reward would be stronger to their fellow canines. Five scents were presented (self, familiar human, strange human, familiar dog, strange dog). While the olfactory bulb/peduncle was activated to a similar degree by all the scents, the caudate was activated maximally to the familiar human. Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present. The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog's sense of smell, and it provides important clues about the importance of humans in dogs’ lives.
Berns, G. S., Brooks, A. M., & Spivak, M. (2015). Scent of the familiar: An fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors. Behavioural processes, 110, 37-46. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.beproc.2014.02.011