Sunday, October 06, 2013

Dogs Are people Too

FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.
Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.
Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.
Until now.
By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. 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. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.
From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.
My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.
With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, we started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.
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.
Soon, the local dog community learned of our quest to determine what dogs are thinking. Within a year, we had assembled a team of a dozen dogs who were all “M.R.I.-certified.”
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.
Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.
But the caudate may be an exception. 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.
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. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
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. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.
DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.
But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.
One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of “guardian” to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.
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.
I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons. However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. 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.
Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

21 comments:

Mary Hekker said...

I love this article. Personally, I am of the mind that says yes- dogs are people too. Being an animal lover, I hope that dogs will be treated as children in the eyes of the law. Adult dogs have the mental capacity of an 18-32 month child. And this article proves that dogs have emotion, attachment, and they can experience suffering and fear. Would we subject our toddler to race in a stadium? Or be chained up to a tree all day and night? I hope that soon, dogs and cats will be taken away if their human parents abuse them. And I also dream of the day where these dogs won't be tossed into a shelter to be immediately put on death row. My foster dog now was on death row because his owners left him to endure Hurricane Sandy chained to a fence outside. By some miracle he was rescued but not all dogs were that lucky. I love how this experiment treated the dogs being MRI-trianed as human subjects, having needed to fill out a waiver and being allowed to leave the machine if they wish. That's the kind of respect all animals need. I'm looking forward to when we realize that humans aren't the only ones who need to be treated with respect.

Bradley Malave said...

I always had the idea that everything living whether it be an animal, insect or plant, has the capacity to experience emotion. This article supports my belief by MRI findings that dogs do get excited and experience what seem to be emotions based on brain activity. It does bother me that just because something hasn’t been proven to have emotion that it is legal to treat them of lesser. Dogs are put down when no one wants them in the pound and that’s legal but it would be unthinkable and highly illegal for orphanages to put down children if they are not adopted by a certain time period. Dogs having emotion should be very clear because everyone knows what it means when a dog wags its tail, it’s happy. Although this isn’t conclusive evidence, it should give people the idea that most likely dogs and other living things have emotions.

Cynthia Romero said...

This article is amazing and is definitely a positive start to getting to the route of the problem. Unfortunately, most of the time, rescues make it nearly impossible for someone to adopt a pet. The truth is that it IS easier to simply buy one. Working in this field for as long as I have, fostering and dealing with rescues and shelters, I've seen awful things and although I realize that sometimes it is very hard to keep hope, we have to continue to educate, understand and have faith that there are wonderful pet owners out there. Spay and neuter is the humane way to control the population. Some minds will always remain closed but it is about informing and touching as many hearts as we can. It is extremely obvious to me that humans are not the only ones who experience emotion. There have been studies done that prove that even plants have emotions. We must learn to treat everything with kindness and respect even if we do not understand it. We need to open our minds and our hearts.

Chris Olsen said...

I strongly agree with this article in saying that dogs are people too. I, as a dog owner, strongly believe that my dog loves me even though she can not say it. In believing this I would hope that someday dogs have the same rights as humans do. I think that the discovery that dogs have emotions is a great leap forward to proving that they are people too. I think that the fact they treated the dogs as humans during the entirety of the experiment allows the study to be more conclusive. Its shows that they weren't forced or motivated in any other way and should protect the study from possible arguments against it. However, this doesn't make it conclusive by any means it only helps prove it to be true. If anything this article and study should put the idea in the minds of humans that dogs and possibly other animals are the same as you or I. It will hopefully get people to treat animals better if not equal.

Dana Colavito said...

I agree that dogs are people too for many reasons. I am an animal lover and I believe not just dogs but all animals in general have emotions and deserve to be treated fairly. I am happy that this study has been done to show officials that dogs are not property. It is not right for them to be chained up or to be put down just because there is no home for them. Working in an animal hospital I have seen dogs put down simply because their owner could not afford a surgery. Yet we would never do that to a human. Hopefully this study makes a significant change and solves this problem of treating animals like objects.

Annamaria Watson said...

I disagree with some of this post for the reason that it promotes the anthropomorphism of animals. Dogs are not people too. They are dogs. Cats are cats. Proof that they have highly developed emotions is not proof of their humanity, it is proof of their canine and feline natures. Humans seem to think that the more they treat animals as humans, the better off we will be. I disagree. I do not want to treat my cat or dog with respect and dignity because it is like me, but because it is fully itself. Thus, I support the conclusion of the argument which advocates for more fair treatment of animals as their own beings, but not how he arrived at that conclusion which took from the dogs their identity and replaced it with a human identity that they never asked for, or required, for respect.

Anthony Jones said...

This was definitely a worth while read! I really enjoyed reading about this experiment. I am long awaiting the day where all animals, regardless of species, size, 'beauty', brain capacity etc; are all regarded as inherently equal. The time has come for it to be acknowledged that they too are deserving of both the right of freedom and quality of life. There is NO doubt that dogs are people too, or rather, are in possession of the same emotions, self awarenesses that drive the human species. As such, we have an responsibility to not only look after these creatures but to oversee that they enjoy a quality of life that can be matched with one of any human living in a free world. Now this is not to say we should 'wine and dine' animals, but we should at least,in some part, offer them the same decencies we our selves like to be offered. I applaud this experiment as its efforts and further research will undoubtedly allow dogs to be afforded the same essential rights as any human. Soon this can probably be spread to other animals such as birds, cats, squirrels, etc. granted the criteria is not solely based on the possession of human like traits. But then again, these efforts might be slow in coming because in a world where we can't even nurture and respect other human beings, how can it be expected that we care for even the simplest animal?

Anonymous said...

I LOVED this article. I am a huge animal lover and although its not completely proven yet...yes I think dogs are people.

The one this this article does prove is that dogs do have emotion and are capable of suffering. I think of myself as a deontologist so just the pure fact that they can suffer is reason enough for me to treat them with equal respect as you would a human.

I've always thought it was clear that dogs experience emotion...the only thing that stops people from truly believing that is the obvious language barrier. I think it's great that they performed an MRI because that proves their brain activity.

Overall, its just a great article. It shed light and scientific proof that dogs do feel emotion and have similar brain activity to humans. A lot of people emit illogical responses to things that have never been scientifically proven. This article puts those types of people to shame and it proved what I've always had a firm belief in.
-Megan Spaulding

Leah Deegidio said...

This article is a very good representation that the research of animal brain activity is very interesting and relatively new to science. Training dogs to stay still for an MRI is an amazing thing because it can now allow us to research and compare the animal's brain to humans. Animal lovers know that they are like us, however, there can now be scientific proof that there is emotion in an animal's mind. Hopefully this will be the start of people considering all animals worth protecting in our environment.

Christie Homberg said...

This article provides a lot of support to the idea that animals should have similar, if not equal rights to people. I personally think that animals, especially dogs, are intelligent and should not be looked upon as lesser beings. For many dog lovers and animal rights advocates, you don't need tests like those mentioned in the article to prove that animals deserve rights. However, the results of the experiments discussed should at least be convincing enough to get people to at least consider the idea that dogs have emotional and intellectual capabilities. Hopefully, the continuation of experiments like this one will bring rise to a new treatment of animals.

Remy Gallo said...

I thoroughly enjoyed a break from the depressing environmental articles. This was a great read for many reason but I don't see it causing any significant changes in the near future. The fact is that dogs probably wouldn't live as long without human care. I'm not saying they should be considered property at all but they certainly need us. With that said I tip my hat to the professor who wrote this book. Reading this I cannot believe it hasn't been thought of before. People have always been wondering what dogs think and this mans findings are nothing short of revolutionary. I do feel dogs are mistreated by many in society and hopefully with this article and the future studies to come we can come closer to ending all animal cruelty, not only dogs.

Nikita Iyengar said...

I thought this article was very interesting because in most cases, when talking about animals in environmental studies, we tend to focus on livestock or species in the wild, but never domestic animals. I think that by looking at domestic pets, we are looking more at the root of a bigger problem, which is what you need essentially to fix a problem. Here, by looking at the dogs and realizing that they too have very strong emotions and perceptions like us humans, and by showing how we treat them as property, shows from the very begging our distance with other animal species, and our idea of being the master species. We have subconsciously separated ourselves from other animals right from our very own homes. I do believe that dogs are more than just 'our property' and that they require a good amount of protection from people who ill treat them.

Mary O'Sullivan said...

This article was truly informative. As an animal lover myself, I have always believed that yes, dogs are people too. They have the ability to experience emotion and have the mental capacity of an infant human as proven in the article. After such evidence has been found, it is hard to believe how they are still treated so differently. They are so similar to us that it is hard to believe some of the treatment/abuses they face. Just because an animal cannot express itself using words, does not mean that it has no other was of expression. Similar to a human baby, animals communicate through use of body language.Overall I truly believe that animals need to be treated with the same respect that a human is granted.

Kira Knight said...

I have always believed that dogs are people too and that we should treat them accordingly in terms of love and respect. I think it's crazy to see all these animal cruelty cases on the news and to find out that virtually nothing is being done to the offenders. Animals are definitely not property and they shouldn't be treated as inanimate objects. The MRI proves that dogs (and probably many other animals) have emotions just like we do. They feel pain and joy, both physically and mentally and I think that we need to start being aware of that and acting upon it. As humans, we feel that being at the top of the food chain gives us right to treat every living thing below us like it doesn't matter. This way of thinking needs some serious readjustment. If we change the way we think of animals, it might help us to make the transition to change the way we think of the environment. And once we do that, the world we live in will be a better place.

Omer Aitzaz said...

A very interesting article indeed. However, I personally disagree that dogs are completely humans. If they were humans, they would not be dogs! Scientists are still studying the brain; we still do not know how every emotion or response we humans feels is decoded and revealed through the workings of the brain. It is one thing to say that dogs have a similar higher brain function to humans, but another to say that they are similar. Dogs have a different physiology than humans. Yes dogs are emotional creatures that undergo the same rudimentary emotions of fear, love, happiness, sadness and anger. However, the human brain is much more developed to comprehend certain emotions that dogs cannot reciprocate. Giving dogs that same legal and social status as humans seems absurd since dogs are not like humans. Human visualize and study situations from all angles and determine the results of their actions. Dog are incapable of that. For instance, if a stranger offers us food, humans are more then likely to not accept it. However, give a random dog a piece of meat and it will grow soft on you. The point here is that yes dogs feel and undergo certain human emotions but their brain is not as developed and convoluted as that of humans therefore, granting them legality and social status of humans does not make any sense to me. Dogs want to be treated like dogs; they want to catch prey and run around. As far as euthenasia is concerned, it is a subjective matter; you have dogs that are in shelters where no one wants an adult dog. What are we supposed to do with them? Putting them down sounds harsh but there is no other alternative. Dogs need to feel connected to their owners and being around in a shelter is like being in a prison cell.
The articles talks about dogs being treated as a property. I counteract the statement by saying that dogs are like baby humans; human babies are also treated the same way. They are taken care of and are provided food and shelter. The parent takes care of its baby and let no harm come to them. They are constantly surveilling the baby making sure they do not hurt themselves. Treating dogs like human babies seems to be more appropraite then giving them an adult status in society.
Maybe in the future when technology has advanced, we might to able to study their cognitive emotions alot better but for now it makes more sense to treat dogs like dogs; love them and take care of them but also give them the freedom to just be dogs, the way they were meant to be!

Michael Bronn said...

Dogs are animals and they have feelings too. There has been way too much animal abuse lately and people have to be punished to a reasonable extent based on the situation. People that are not suited to have animals and take care of them properly should not be sold animals. There is more care put into who gets a gun than who gets an animal. It is time to take better care of mans best friend.

Taylor Vogt said...

It's really interesting to think that we have the technology now to ascribe emotional and cognitive patterns and design to other species. I think it's amazing that we can analyze what another species' brain is doing and compare it to ours to better understand why they do what they do. I have a lofty and 'unrealistic' dream that animals and humans could one day create patterns of speech that we can use to communicate with one another. I think that would be extremely valuable in ending debates over animal abuse and ownership. I grew up learning about the endangered wildcat trade and the impact that the divide between the human and animal psyche has nature. People think we're different, that we're somehow separate from animals and nature because we operate on some higher functioning level cognitively. If we continue to pursue ends like this article describes maybe we can break down those barriers and lend some due empathy to the animals we've been misunderstanding for so long.

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