Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Neither snow nor rain…

By Rebecca Frankel Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent Oddly enough, I couldn’t help but think of the Postal Service motto when I saw this photo, a postcard from snowy scene in China — a soldier posing with a dog (I’m assuming it’s one of China’s MWDs) in Heilongjiang Province on Jan. 29. The two were ...

ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images
ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

Oddly enough, I couldn't help but think of the Postal Service motto when I saw this photo, a postcard from snowy scene in China -- a soldier posing with a dog (I'm assuming it's one of China's MWDs) in Heilongjiang Province on Jan. 29. The two were photographed at a military training exercise where the temperature dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night..." It seems just as fitting here as a way of relaying the devotion and partnership inherent in the closest MWD teams.

By Rebecca Frankel
Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

Oddly enough, I couldn’t help but think of the Postal Service motto when I saw this photo, a postcard from snowy scene in China — a soldier posing with a dog (I’m assuming it’s one of China’s MWDs) in Heilongjiang Province on Jan. 29. The two were photographed at a military training exercise where the temperature dipped to minus 30 degrees Celsius.

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…" It seems just as fitting here as a way of relaying the devotion and partnership inherent in the closest MWD teams.

Diving deeper into that partnership, on the side of the dog, at least, was this New York Times op-ed, "Dogs Are People, Too," written by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, that I saw was circulating MWD handler Facebook groups. Berns and his colleagues have been training dogs to undergo MRI scans while completely conscious so they can look at their active brains. What they discovered is quite remarkable and possibly not all that surprising, depending on whether or not you believe a dog is capable of feelings of love — beyond obedience, beyond a relationship based on need and survival.

"Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives)," Berns writes, "seem to have emotions just like us." Now this is hardly a revolutionary idea — even Darwin wrote about his own dog and the clear indications he saw in the dog’s behavior to indicate that canines are indeed emotional beings and possess the ability to very clearly express those emotions. But Berns’s examination of the canine brain yielded some noteworthy results, or if one were making an argument, evidence.

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus…. Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region…. But the caudate may be an exception. Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

Berns writes on to discuss whether or not these findings should not only change the way we see dogs but also how we treat them … but I thought the above finding is enough food for thought on its own.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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