By October 7, 2013 Read More →

Dogs are People, Too…and Now There’s Science to Prove It

Lilah, worried

You know it and I know it: dogs feel emotions.

Now, thanks to Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, we can see it. He took two years to train dogs to lie still for an MRI, using only rewards and no medications. Wearing earmuffs to protect their hearing, the canine volunteers (they were allowed to walk away from the machine if they didn’t like it) gave us ground-breaking views into their minds.

What the scientists found won’t surprise anyone who’s lived with a dog. According to Berns, the area known as the caudate was shown to be activated in dogs who underwent the imaging. In humans, “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.”

The corresponding part of the dog’s brains activated when the dogs saw hand signals that meant food. It activated when they smelled their humans. It activated when their humans left the room and came back again.

The findings are so powerful that Berns wrote an editorial, published in the New York Times this past Sunday, calling for a redefinition of how our society treats dogs. They should no longer be considered property, he writes. Maybe they should be classified as wards, with humans in the role of guardians. “Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere.”

He goes on, “If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”

Berns notes that recently the Supreme Court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced  to life imprisonment without parole, because brain scans show that the adolesent human brain isn’t mature (something I’m sure many of us can also attest to). Thus, he says, “Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom. Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.”

Dogs are our companions, our friends, our wards. They think, they feel, they love. But we all knew that, didn’t we?


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