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While they are treasured companions, can dogs also teach us more about learning and adaptions?

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Graduate student Sophie Barton says yes. Listen in to learn how to understand your dog better but also to find out what they’re brains might tell us about how our own learning develops.

Listen and learn

  • The history of how dog breeding developed in the first place and what differences between breeds might indicate about brain development,
  • A description of how she’s designed studies to show differences between innate traits and the impact of being a working dog, and
  • Other interesting studies to evaluate dog behavior signs and reactions such as the ability to show empathy and ways for understanding dog body language.

Sophie Barton studies how brains evolve adaptations to learn specific behaviors and skills.

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She explains that she uses domestic dogs because they are a great vehicle for study: dogs have been bred for a variety of behaviors that are relevant to humans, especially dog social behavior.

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They have been bred based on aggression, sociality, and other human traits that are analogous to and significant for our own behavior. While we might think most breeds have been around for a long time, they have only been around a few hundred years. She explains how the Victorian era really took breeding up a notch by using practices to advance dog work even more and show their dogs off as commodities. 

She explains that her main study involves neuroimaging research: she studies pairs of dogs that are siblings. These pairs have one that is actively a work dog, like a border collie who herds, and the other who has lived life more as a companion. She compares their brain through imaging, identifies what neural circuits are involved in a behavior such as herding, and evaluates how the circuit changes according to experience.

She also shares with listeners her vast knowledge of fascinating quirks and trends in dog behavior, from dog facial expressions to their response to our own neutral expressions. She describes interesting possible neural differences in breeds who need to work alone, like hunting dogs, versus dogs who work more on verbal and whistle commands, like herding dogs. So listen in for surprising findings as dog behaviors are explained. 

For more about her work and some lovely dog photos, see You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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