Dogs have capacity for emotion, study finds
MRI scans of dogs reveal a striking similarity between canine and human minds. One researcher says we should rethink how we treat dogs.
Tue, Oct 08, 2013 at 10:13 AM
Using MRI technology, scientists at Emory University set out to determine how dogs' brains work, and they discovered that dogs experience emotions in a way comparable to humans.
Or, as researcher Gregory Berns concluded, "Dogs are people too."
For two years Berns and his colleagues have trained dogs to enter an MRI scanner while awake and unrestrained. Typically, animals are anesthetized so they won't move during a scan, but you can't study brain functions like perception and emotion when an animal is asleep.
Another reason Berns chose not to anesthetize his canine participants is because he says wanted to treat the dogs like people.
All the dogs in the study have consent forms signed by their owners, and only positive training methods are used to prepare the animals for the MRI.
Berns' own dog, Callie, was the first dog to have her brain scanned. With the help of a dog trainer, Berns taught Callie to enter an MRI simulator he'd built in his home.
Callie learned to enter the tube, place her head in a chin rest and sit still while wearing earmuffs to protect her ears from the machine's noise.
After a few months of training, Callie was ready for her first MRI, and Berns and his colleagues got their first maps of canine brain activity.
Other owners soon volunteered their dogs for research, and Berns has now scanned more than a dozen of their brains. The more data he gathers, the more he's convinced that dogs aren't that different from us.
The canine brain maps showed Berns that dogs use a region of the brain known as the caudate nucleus in a similar way to humans. The caudate has a large number of dopamine receptors that increase in both dogs and humans in response to an anticipated moment.
For example, the dogs' caduate activity increased when they smelled a familiar human or dog or when their owners reappeared after leaving the room.
These findings don’t necessarily mean that our dogs love us, but because many of the same things activate both the human caudate and the dog caudate, neuroscientists say this could 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," Berns writes in the New York Times. "And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs."
Because dogs and other animals seem to have emotions similar our own, Berns suggests that we assign a "limited personhood" to animals that shows evidence of emotion.
He says we could also take it a step further and give dogs "rights of personhood," which would provide them with protection against exploitation. With this kind of protection, laboratory dogs and puppy mills would be banned for violating the canines' rights.
"I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons," Berns writes. "However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility."
To learn more about Berns' work, watch the video below.
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