Dogs can be trained to do a multitude of tasks. Most can learn to sit, lie and stay; others can guide the blind, rescue the injured and maybe even detect cancer. But the hardest thing of all might be to train them to do nothing. Stop scratching. Don't wag your tail. Don't drool. Don't even lick your chops.
My dog can heed the command "stay" for a total of about four seconds. And that's on a good day. So when I read the terms of the recent study in the journal Science — dogs had to lie still for eight minutes straight in a clanging MRI machine, while wearing earphones and a radiofrequency coil — I had to talk to the researchers.
Marta Gacsi, a behaviorial scientist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, was responsible for training the dogs and is a co-author of the study by the Family Dog Project that's exploring how dogs understand and process human language.
"The dogs were not restrained in any way," Gacsi said. "We didn't apply any restraints to keep the dogs in the desired position or in the scanner. They could leave the tube and the scanner at any time they wanted to — and sometimes they did."
The dogs also had to be fully awake inside the scanner, she explained, as their owners talked to them. They could not be drugged. That would have thrown off the results. Oh, and they also had to learn to wear headphones and a radiofrequency coil — and lie still with their head between their paws.
My dog would never do that. Actually, Gacsi insisted, the easy part was teaching them to wear headphones. It's no different than training a puppy to wear a collar, she said.
Still, some of the best-trained dogs — those you might think would be ideal for this study — could not stay still for more than a minute or two and had to be kicked out of the experiment.
"They couldn't stand this," Gacsi said. The dogs were so attuned to the trainers' wishes, they couldn't relax. "OK, I've been lying for two minutes," these smart, good dogs seemed to say. "Now tell me what to do!"
Because those dogs got so frustrated, Gacsi said, "we couldn't use them. They couldn't understand the task was doing nothing."
So what was the trick to getting them to lie still inside an fMRI scanner for an entire eight minutes, with the machine horrifically banging away?
The secret, Gacsi said, was to convince the dogs that the whole thing was fun — that the MRI machine is the place where all the cool dogs party. Before the experiment actually began, all the dogs were invited in — they were praised, got lots of treats. Everyone was having a great time in the scanner.
To get a better sense of the scientists' strategy, Gacsi said, think about how you'd persuade your grandmother to enjoy going to a disco.
"It's noisy," Gacsi pointed out. "So many people! It smells. It doesn't seem fun for a grandma." But throw in some good food, or Grandma's favorite cocktail, and some fun, happy companions, and she might be persuaded.
"We tricked our dogs that we are happy to be there," she said. "So they wanted to be part of the party."
Not every dog, in the end, was persuaded to stay at this particular "disco." For the canines that were left, another difficult moment arose when the researchers had to take away the food reward. A disco without cocktails and salty snacks. Oh, and no dancing.
"They had to be absolutely motionless," Gacsi said. "They couldn't move their mouths; they couldn't swallow. ... They couldn't even expect food because of the drooling problem. They couldn't even think of cheese!"
Now, instead of using cheese bribes, the researchers solely rewarded the dogs with praise.
Each pup learned to stay longer and longer on the table, earning ever more praise. In the end, the scientists ended up with 13 dogs that could understand that they would get a treat at the end of the experiment — but only if they stayed still. Very, very still.
Try that at home.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
There was a study that came out in recent days that got a lot of play in the media, including here at NPR. It found that dogs can understand what we say to them - the actual words, not just the tone of voice.
BARTON GIRDWOOD, BYLINE: Oh, you're such a good girl. You're such a good girl.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
That's our producer Barton Girdwood with his dog. The scientists made their discovery about dogs' understanding of language by getting dogs to lie still in an MRI machine and monitoring their brains while talking to them.
MONTAGNE: Which got us wondering, how on earth did the researchers get the dogs to lie completely still in an MRI machine...
(SOUNDBITE OF MRI MACHINE RUNNING)
MONTAGNE: ...For eight minutes at a time, without drugging the dogs?
MARTA GACSI: Everybody told us that it's impossible because dogs wouldn't stay in the scanner because it's very noisy and annoying, even for humans.
INSKEEP: Marta Gacsi tried to find out how it would not be impossible. We reached her by Skype.
MONTAGNE: She studies animal behavior at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest. She trained the dogs not to move.
GACSI: They had to be absolutely motionless. They couldn't lick their mouth. They couldn't swallow. They couldn't even expect food because of the drooling problem.
INSKEEP: In other words, she couldn't rely on using treats.
GACSI: We didn't apply any restraint to keep the dogs in the desired position or in the scanner, so they could leave the tube and the scanner bed any time they wanted to. And sometimes they did so.
MONTAGNE: That was the key - giving them the option to go but tricking them into wanting to stay.
INSKEEP: It was essentially all a mind game to convince them it was fun to stay still.
GACSI: Our first aim was to persuade dogs that it's fun because they must feel it's great. So we communicate that they are great if they are there, so we are proud of them. And we are happy to be there. There's a big party there. And they believe us, even if it doesn't make sense.
MONTAGNE: And the longer the dogs were able to stay on the table, the more praise they earned. Eventually, there were 13 dogs that lay perfectly still for eight minutes and were happy to do it.
INSKEEP: So if your dog looks at you blankly when you tell her to sit, try again - this time with lots of praise.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATOMIC DOG")
GEORGE CLINTON: (Singing) Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yay. Bow wow, yippie yo, yippie yay. Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yay. Bow wow, yippie yo, yippie yay. Untied dog in a dogmatic society... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.