Dogs, Emotions and "Personhood"

Monday, October 14, 2013 - 4:00pm
grey and white pitbull wearing purple collar

On October 5, The New York Times published an opinion piece by Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, about his two-year study of brain activity in conscious pet canines. (Rest assured, no dogs were harmed: “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.”)

For Berns, who found that positive anticipation (of food or familiar people, etc.) stems from the same part of the brain in both humans and dogs, the study’s takeaway is “Dogs are people, too.” This leads him to question the righteousness of dogs’ current legal status: “[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.”

This week the website posted a great follow-up article that expands on the concept of “personhood” for animals and quotes the ASPCA’s own Stacy Wolf, Senior Vice President, Anti-Cruelty Group—read it here.

What Do You Think?
We want to hear your take on this debate. Should dogs be given the same legal protections as people, or is it right to continue to categorize them as “property”? In what ways have your own dogs shown you that they have emotions? Have your say in our comments section, below.

Beagle laying on lawnWant to stay up-to-date on the latest news in the fight against animal cruelty?

Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter, ASPCA News Alert - you'll receive important updates on what's going on and how you can make an impact to save animals' lives!

Add new comment




Great comment. Leave the emotions out of it. It doesn't help our cause. This emotional "My dog loves me and I love them so they should be persons" argument I see all over here is going to get you nowhere and only serves to give the activist community a bad name. I do write my congressmen and when I do I use logical, rational arguments supported by facts not conjecture. That's also what professional organizations who fight for animal welfare do, like ASPCA. Follow their lead.

Jaroslava AZ

I lost year ago my little blondie girl chihuahua 'Angel', it still is the most heartbreaking thing, that happened to me. Lost husband too, but this little one was my true soulmate my only perfection in a long and good life. A property? NO. That is contributing to all the abuse and neglect. They should be to everyone a family members and the laws should totaly support that. That is my firm believe.

Mary Capaccio



As a substitute teacher, I recently underwent training to detect child abuse. It was pointed out, by the person leading the training, that in 1674 Massachusetts put a law on the books that said children were property. They (the children)could be put to death if they were troublesome. That law was taken off the books in the mid-1970's. Our treatment of children has improved. Its now time to treat all species of animals with more respect and compassion.

Mary Capaccio

I can sum it up...It's people that should be under the authority of the U.S.D.A. not dogs.


I have always said that dogs are not property, they are part of our family. Dexter is really smart he understands what I say. Who else gives you love without wanting anything in return.

Despina M. Andrelus

Of course animals feel emotion! No tests are needed to understand this. Anyone who has an animal - who is paying attention and has love in their heart - knows of all the different emotions their animals present them throughout any given day. Animal welfare laws do need to be strengthened and changed to show that animals are not things and, indeed, are living, feeling beings that need our protection. And the fact that we are above animals, makes them our responsibility to love and care for them. They are here for humans, but in terms of loving and being loved. They help us emotionally and physically by being War-Police-Fire-Search-Rescue-Service-Guide-Therapy Dogs, beloved companions, etc.!! THAT is their reason here, NOT for brutality and torture!!! Animal Welfare brings all the backing of protection to it without forgetting the fact that people are still the caregivers and thus need to be the responsible party for animals and their wellbeing. It places the responsibility exactly where it needs to belong - on the human beings. "I hope to make people realize how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs...(They) are an obligation put on us, a responsibility we have no rights to neglect, nor to violate by cruelty...." - JAMES HARRIOT

mary barber

When I found my dog she was living wild with 8 puppies. I spent three weeks live-trapping her and all the pups - I caught 7 pups first and then caught the mom before the last pup was trapped. When the local Humane Society driver came to transport mom to the vet's (I was sure she had heartworm, which was confirmed), she was secured in a cage in the truck. But while taking her to the vet's she got out of the cage and was running loose in the back of the truck, trying to see out all the windows. Meanwhile, I had trapped the last pup, so I called him. He said he would turn back to get that pup, since mom had gotten loose and was frantically running around the back of his truck. When he opened the door she tried to bolt out, but he caught her and secured her in a cage again. When the last pup was loaded in a cage next to her, she immediately laid down and was calm the rest of the trip to the vet's. It was as if she were saying, "My job is done now - all my puppies are safe and no one is left behind". That tells me the maternal instinct is just as strong in animals as in humans -and that they should be accorded the same legal protections we have and not treated as "property"!


This is fascinating but sad to read that a being's treatment should improve because we suspect it has similar emotional reactions to us. It reminds me of justifying cruelty by saying, "X doesn't feel pain the way we do."

Susan G.

WE MUST BE VERY CAREFUL! Laws stating that an animal is not "property" can also work against us if the laws are not written precisely. What I mean is that, we can have pets and if the law does not see them as our "property" they can also, possibly, be taken away from us for no reason at all!