Erin Hecht, speaking as both scientist and dog lover, explained how her interests came together:
“They beg to be analyzed,” said the assistant professor of neuroscience in the department of Human Evolutionary Biology. “You find yourself constantly thinking about what goes on in their heads.”
Hecht, who joined the faculty in January, has published her first paper on our canine comrades in the Journal of Neuroscience, finding that different breeds have different brain organizations owing to human cultivation of specific traits. Using MRI scans from 63 dogs of 33 breeds, Hecht found neuroanatomical features correlating to different behaviors such as hunting, guarding, herding, and companionship. Sight hunting and retrieving, for example, were both tied to a network that included regions involved in vision, eye movement, and spatial navigation.
“In my career so far, there have been a couple times when you look at the raw images and know there is something there even before you do statistics. This was one of these times,” she said. “I was like ‘Holy cow! How come no one else has done this?’”
Hecht isn’t entirely sure why dogs have not been long considered proper study subjects, but she theorizes that it’s easy to dismiss what lies at your feet.
“It was weird to be doing this back in 2012. When I told people, some would say, ‘Oh that’s cute,’” she said. “It took a long time to convince other scientists and funding agencies that dogs could really tell us something about brain evolution.”