Groundbreaking Emory-CPT Dog Project

Subject: Groundbreaking Emory-CPT Dog Project Looks to Expand after Receiving New Government Contract

Atlanta and Sandy Springs, GA- Tuesday, August 13, 2013.

Since dogs are our most vital pets and the working animal most important to the military, wouldn’t it be beneficial to literally delve deep into their minds? Wouldn’t it be nice to know whether our dogs love us? How we can make them happier? What is the best way to train them?

But, how do we venture into their brains to answer the preceding questions?

A research team comprised of a prominent Emory professor and a well-respected Sandy Springs dog trainer are seeking to answer the preceding questions. They are the first researchers worldwide to effectively use the tool of MRI to study dog behavior. They have obtained some significant accomplishments. However, to progress even further in answering the above questions, they need the help of Atlanta dog owners and their very special dogs.

Before February 2012, neuropsychologists and veterinarians believed it was impossible to acquire MRI images of animals without the use of sedation or restraints. MRI machines provoke enclosure anxiety in many humans, nonetheless animals that don’t understand the procedure, operate at a piercing 95 decibels or more, which is tantamount to standing near a jackhammer, require virtual motionlessness, as subjects can not move more than 3mm within any spatial plane for a period of up to 30 seconds, and are constructed for the human anatomy, not the canine anatomy.

Historically, neuropsychology researchers who wished to study animals compensated by fully sedating the animals or by partially sedating the animals in combination with implementing a system of restraints. In some cases, restraints were as extreme as surgically implanting permanent halos to the skulls of the animals and then affixing the halos to the head coil of the MRI, while conjunctively keeping the torso and extremities confined via a pillory system and leather straps.

However, Dr. Gregory Berns, a Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University and the Director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy, wished to humanely use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study canine cognition, emotions, receptive communication, and sensory perception, so that he could acquire information that would strengthen the human-animal bond. To accomplish both his research and humane objectives, Dr. Berns realized that he needed to find a way to train animals to cooperatively enter and remain stationary within an MRI magnet without using any sedatives or restraints.

Although his peers worldwide scoffed at Dr. Berns’ vision, he proceeded to see his vision to fruition. In May 2011, Dr. Berns began collaborating with Mark Spivak, the Head Trainer and President of Comprehensive Pet Therapy (CPT), one of Atlanta’s most respected pet training and behavior modification companies. Mr. Spivak isolated the key variables and behaviors necessary to humanely accomplish the world’s first awake, unrestrained canine MRI. He then developed training protocols that acclimated the dogs to the MRI environment, taught the dogs to comfortably wear hearing protection, and shaped the dogs to perform each required behavior. The process culminated with the dogs proficiently and safely performing the final intended behavior of performing a relaxed, motionless down-stay within the tight enclosure of the MRI magnet and amidst a high-pitched 95-decibel functional MRI sequence.

Emory-CPT Neuroscience Team

Emory Vet Tech Rebeccah Hunter preparing Pearl to enter the scanner

Dr. Berns and Mr. Spivak concurrently co-designed a chin rest that provided comfort to the dogs, facilitated stationary positioning, and helped the dogs to realign themselves properly in the receiver coil after a reward repetition. The chin rest beneficially converted the MRI machine and receiver coil to accommodate the sagittal structure of the canine anatomy.

After testing the above procedures on Dr. Berns’ personal dog, Callie, and a Border Collie owned by a CPT trainer, the team then developed assessment procedures that determined dogs with the highest potential for training success. They next scheduled evaluations to find community-owned dogs meeting the profile. In addition, they sought owners who had an interest in participating in the project, as the project specifications required the owners to implement designated homework assignments.

In February 2012 they completed the world’s first fMRI scan of an awake, unrestrained animal. In May 2012, Berns, Spivak, and Andrew Brooks, a PhD neuroscientist who adapted the MRI software to work with the morphology and brain structure of canines, published the project’s first paper, “Functional MRI in Awake Unrestrained Dogs,” in the prestigious scientific journal PLOS One.

Since the publication of their paper, the Emory-CPT project has received mention in the national media, including a piece on ABC World News Tonight, received a significant grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to apply their groundbreaking technology to improve the selection and training of military explosives detection dogs, received a contract from the Department of Defense (DOD) to apply their research to improve the selection of service dogs destined to assist veterans suffering from PTSD, they have been filmed by the BBC for inclusion in an upcoming documentary on dog cognition, and Berns and Spivak have formed a private company, Dog Star Technologies, whose mission is to develop leading edge products that emanate from the research. Dog Star presently has one product in prototype, a “Relaxation Vest” that uses advanced technology to reduce canine trait and state anxiety.

As of July 2013, the Emory-CPT project team led by Berns and Spivak has successfully scanned 12 community-owned dogs in experiments that studied anticipatory reward responses, social olfactory responses, and whether dogs can receive instruction from a computer. Moreover, they remain the only research group worldwide that has successfully scanned animals in an MRI without using sedation or restraints.

The MRI brain image of Tigger, a Boston Terrier scanned without the use of sedation or restraints.

According to Dr. Berns, “Dogs are our closest interspecies working partners and companions. Yet, until now, we had no way of actually getting into our dogs’ minds to know what they are thinking or whether they truly love us. It is amazing to realize what we can learn and how this project can improve the lives of working dogs, pet dogs, and their humans.”

Spivak said, “Before starting CPT I worked in the semiconductor industry, an industry based on advanced science. The Emory-CPT project allows me to integrate empirical science into the dog training industry, which for too long has suffered from differences of opinion based principally on conjecture and emotion, rather than researched facts. I believe this project will be highly influential in advancing the science of dog behavior so that we create happier pets and happier owners, as well as military working dogs that keep us safer.”

During the next phase of the project, Berns and Spivak wish to expand their canine team to a total of 30 dogs. Therefore, they have scheduled tryouts on Sunday, September 8, 2013 at the CPT Training Center in Sandy Springs (6600 Roswell Road, Suite K-2, Sandy Springs, GA 30328). Atlanta area pet owners wishing to participate in the project will need to attend the tryout. If accepted into the program, owners and dogs will need to attend complimentary bi-weekly training sessions and diligently complete nightly homework exercises. Once their dog reaches proficiency, participants will receive a brain image of their dog, an “MRI Certified” diploma, and monetary compensation for each successful scan. To register for the tryout session, pet owners should contact CPT by phone at 404-236-2150. In addition, if persons are unavailable the day of the September 8 tryout, but wish to attend a future tryout, they should also contact CPT.

Said Berns, “We are looking for people who share our vision for strengthening the human-animal bond. And at the same time, all the dogs and people who participate have a great time.”

For more information, contact Mark Spivak, 6600 Roswell Road, Suite K-2, Sandy Springs, GA 30328; W: 404-236-2150; E:

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