Training and Cohort

Much of the appeal dogs have for comparative neuroscience research relates to the possibility to train them in a way that they can be scanned without sedation and physical restraint (Berns & Cook 2016, Bunford et al. 2017, Thompkins et al., 2015 for reviews). The CCNU builds on the pioneering work of other groups that have paved the way for such training to be successful. Our approach entails gradual training in the many little steps the animals have to acquire so they can ultimately be scanned while in a comfortable yet attentive condition. The training exclusively relies on positive reinforcement and (food) rewards for the correct behavior, and we do not restrain the dogs whatsoever. Training mostly takes place in a tailor-made mock scanner, but also in the actual MRI scanner.

Noise protection: ear plugs & head wrap

Entering the scanner bore

Adjustment of head position

Weekly training takes usually 30-45 minutes, individualized for each dog’s needs. It consists of a strict training schedule with six stepwise training criteria for the dogs.
1) Stay in prone position with the head in the mock coil on the floor for 5 min (some practice at home with mock coils and chin rests provided by the Clever Dog Lab), 2) go up the ramp and lay down still on the moving table, 3) stay still with the head in the mock coil on the table in front of the mock scanner bore for 5min, 4) learn to wear ear plugs and a head wrap, and get used to the increasing volume of scanner noise playbacks (up to 95 db, without protection, and about 75 dB to max 85 dB with protection), 5) stay still with the head in the mock coil while being moved in the mock scanner and lay there calm for 10 min, 6) remain motionless in the coil in the mock scanner while watching videos on a screen in front of the mock scanner. When the dogs fulfilled the final training criteria they proceeded to the real scanner environment at the Neuroimaging Center (NIC) Vienna.

Training at the mock scanner

Completed noise protection

Scanner room with custom-made ramp

Pilot data

In spring 2017, we conducted a pilot study with five pet dogs. We trained them once a week with the mock coil and scanner. After several training sessions in which we also optimized the training approach, they were ready to participate in a study using dynamic visual stimulation (videos). Analysis of the data indicated very low movement, no signs of discomfort, and high task compliance. Moreover, activation of the visual cortex served as a proof of concept that both the training and the scanning procedures were effective.

Current Cohort

After obtaining funding for two dog fMRI Ph.D. projects, from September 2018 onwards we extended our initial cohort of five dogs, and so far include another 24 pet dogs into the training regime (mostly Border Collies). Following the training in the mock scanner, they generalize the training very well to the real scanner, and it usually takes only few sessions in the real scanner environment until they are ready to be included in their first full-fledged fMRI experiment. Importantly, once trained a dog can participate in several studies. In case of longer breaks between scanning, a refreshment training session can be used, if necessary.

Practice head wrap and mock knee coil

Ethical and animal welfare aspects

Dog lying on scanner bed wearing noise protection

The CCNU does not house any of the dogs. All dogs passed a veterinary medical check at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna to participate in the fMRI study and are pet dogs from Austrian households. They live together with their human caregivers and in some cases with a second or a third dog. The human caregivers voluntarily participate in our study and provided written signed consent that their dogs can be included in the research. They usually show a very strong commitment to the research, and many dogs have already participated in other projects of the Clever Dog Lab. All fMRI research and training procedures have attained approval by the Ethics and Animal Protection Board of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.