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FIDOS project could use canine brain scans to select military dogs

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Military Dog (401st_AFSB/Flickr)
Military Dog (401st_AFSB/Flickr)

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is planning to use new advances in MRI scanning technology and animal brain research to help select the most suitable dogs for military and law enforcement tasks. Under the appropriate umbrella title FIDOS — "Functional Imaging to Develop Outstanding Service-Dogs" — the agency has put out a call for proposals, searching for contractors capable of producing a reliable brain scanner and developing a training system to go alongside it.

The first stumbling block has been getting dogs to lie still

As Wired points out, the selection pool for "service-dogs" is already limited to a small group of specific breeds, such as the Belgian Malinois. This limited availability, combined with the high cost of ordinary "reward/punishment conditioning" — DARPA cites expenses of "more than $20,000 per dog-human pair" — makes the selection of healthy and receptive candidates especially important.

The first stumbling block has been getting dogs to lie still inside large and intimidating scanning machines. In a recent study at Emory University, researchers took two months to train their subjects to cooperate, placing their heads in specific positions and making them wear special canine ear muffs. But the results may be worth it: by monitoring dogs' brain activity in response to specific cues from their handlers, it seems possible not only to identify the most receptive animals for training, but also to work out other fundamental traits — particularly social dogs, for instance, make ideal companions for soldiers recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder.