Dog Brain Detour

Mammalian brains – horse brains, dog brains, human brains – have many similarities. Since this is so and since most horse owners love dogs, too, we thought you’d be interested in what folks at Harvard University have found:

Recent cover of the Journal of Neuroscience

Researchers there are discovering that dog brains have neuroanatomical differences depending on what they were bred to do. The differences have less to do with their outward appearance (like a big skull or a small body size) and more to do with regions of the brain which may diminish or amplify, depending on brain skills they most need.

Dr. Erin Hecht is an assistant professor in the department of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. For this study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, she and her colleagues divided the brain into six components or networks involving the following: drive and reward; olfaction and gustation (smell and taste); movement, eye movement and spatial navigation; fear, stress, and anxiety; olfaction and vision.

While the canine family tree is large and storied with hundreds of breeds, scent dogs from different branches of the tree have similar neuroanatomical traits. In other words, selective pressure through generations of domestic breeding, have resulted in the same amplified or diminished components.

Dr. Erin Hecht

Over the last 200 years or so, we humans have bred dogs to be good at various skills to help us get along and accomplish tasks. We’ve bred them to be good at: herding, companionship, sight hunting, scent hunting, and guarding, for instance.

The cute Yorkie that’s constantly in a woman’s arms? The part of the Yorkshire Terrier’s brain that has most to do with social action and interaction has covaried (changed together) with the development of that breed, Hecht and others have shown. Meanwhile, the region of the Border Collie and English Pointer brains associated with drive, reward, and vision has covaried with the advancement of these breeds.

Does this help explain why your border collie and pointer thrive in open, working (ie, reward-filled) environments and why your Yorkie is okay just hanging out with you? Yes!

“The anatomy of these networks correlates significantly with different behavioral specializations such as sight hunting, scent hunting, guarding, and companionship,” wrote Hecht.

We’re connecting with Dr. Hecht to discuss how her findings may apply to horse breeds and aptitudes — stay tuned.

What happens over the long course of time when breed-specific traits aren’t used, essentially becoming neurologically dormant? What happens to the herding dog who lives in the city and whose puppies and then those next puppies never lay eyes on cows or sheep?

Hecht is studying that, too. Read more here.

“We know that training is doing something,” says Hecht. “We’re trying to figure out how far an innate genetic inheritance gets you. And then, what’s the additional bump that you’d get from experience and learning?”

Can you take a city slicker border collie, put it on a herd of cattle, and watch the magic unfold? That’s not likely. But chances are, it would adapt a lot better than, say, a poodle or golden retriever.

Herding dogs take a break. At the Paicines Ranch in California

Posted in Neuroanatomy.

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