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Dogs are people too, researcher says

howdogsloveusA neuroscientist who has been spent two years trying to scan images of their brains says dogs seem to have feelings and emotions, not unlike those of a human child.

Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, has been able to scan the brains of a dozen dogs using an M.R.I, which is quite an achievement in itself. But in looking at those scans he says he has reached the conclusion that,  “Dogs are people, too.” 

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child,” he wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared in Saturday’s New York Times. “And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.”

Berns’ research, which started with his own adopted dog Callie, is detailed in his soon to be released book “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

Bern set out to determine how dogs’ brains work, and what they might be thinking. To that end, he began training dogs to undergo — and stay still during —  M.R.I. scans, willingly and while awake and unrestrained.

“Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal,” he notes. “At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.”

Initially, he worked with his own dog, Callie,  a black terrier mix he adopted from a shelter, using a simulated M.R.I. he built in his living room. As word spread about his research, others volunteered their pets and Berns soon had a dozen dogs “M.R.I.-certified.”

“After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.”

Berns and his team focused on a key brain region called  the caudate nucleus, which sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate, rich in dopamine receptors, plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. Same with dogs — except, we’re pretty sure, for the money part.

“Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy,” he says. “Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty … In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view.”

Berns believes the scans will tell us more than behavioral observations do about what dogs are thinking.

“Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite,” Berns wrote. “But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate.”

That “functional homology,” as neuroscientists call it, may be an indication of canine emotions.

And given that, he asks, is it time to stop considering them property and start affording them some rights as individuals?

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

That day may not be directly around the corner, he notes, but with more being learned about how their brains work, and what thoughts run through them, it could eventually arrive.

“Perhaps someday,” he says, “we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.”

Comments

Comment from Eighteenpaws
Time October 7, 2013 at 10:26 am

When I read this over the weekend in the NYT, I had to wonder AGAIN why we need this? Can’t we just love animals, and let them love us back in their natural, instinctive, diverse ways? Subjecting animals to self-promoting “tests” like this – I am tough but can barely tolerate MRIs myself. Would you ever try to de-sensitive your own pet to MRIs?! Would you want to?! – do nothing to convince me that inter-species affection and devotion are blessings and miracles in themselves, nor that animals need “personhood” protections. I already know that.

Comment from Miss Jan
Time October 7, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Wonderful to have scientific validation for what we’ve known all along. I’d change the analogy of “human children” to “highly intelligent, emotionally and ethically mature, and strongly motivated human children” though.

Comment from reddawg
Time October 8, 2013 at 6:10 am

repost:

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth”.

Henry Beston – The Outermost House 1925

Comment from Jen Brighton
Time October 8, 2013 at 2:21 pm

In the long run, this research may benefit dogs when it comes to courts ruling on whether they are just “property” or truly “family.” I’m thinking of instances where dogs are shot for no reason by law enforcement or neighbors or removed from families because of their breed but not their actions.

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