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.

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I know that they have feelings. I take portraits for various rescue groups and the look in their eyes says it all. It breaks my heart every time I look at these precious little ones. You can see the difference in the eyes of one who has a happy home and one that wants one.


I think dogs should be protected just as we are. They are our family members.
I can verify the fact of dogs having emotions such as those of humans just from living with my dog & the interaction with him over the past 12 years. The saying "he/she's almost human" really is what I say about him. I'm not surprised at all by what the research found.
I've never considered my dog as "property" but as my companion and I would hope that others would treat him the same way.
It's just hard to change some opinions of others, no matter how much research is done on the emotions of animals.

Beverly Fontanella

I don't feel as though any living being can be considered property. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider them ones personal responsibility, another life outside of your own you need to provide for and keep safe. The return of love and devotion you receive from your companion/family member far outweighs any time or costs invested by you, their two legged companion. It's been discovered when your pet looks into your eyes the same endorphin is released as when you first fall in love, the huge difference between us and them is that feeling never goes away for them.

Bill Whorton

This is a little more complex when you dig into it, because there's more than one question here.

I think it's generally accepted that most mammals and birds are self-aware and have emotions. Yeah, most of the time your dog just wants steak (as the meme goes) but I know plenty of humans who are motivated primarily by pizza and beer, so, at that point, we're really talking about differences in sophistication; hardly a sound basis for denying legal rights. So, if you consider "personhood" to be self-awareness--something indicated by the presence of emotions, and which implies the ability to perceive time (to be angry, for instance, you have to be able to compare the present as-is against a different, theoretical present)--then I think it's safe to say that dogs, cats, etc. are persons.

However, virtually every human society makes distinctions between kinds of persons having to do with expectations about their capability to make sound judgments, responsibilities toward society and their community, etc. Young children are persons, but we don't recognize a child's right to enter into legal contracts, for instance, or drive cars, or generally function autonomously. They have rights, but fewer than adults, and those they do have are mostly subordinate to the decisions of their caretakers. Another example: no one would claim that people who are developmentally disabled are not people, but we also generally accept that they may be less able to exercise good judgement or live independently, and so we curtail rights that we'd recognize in non-disabled people.

So, of course dogs have emotions. They're also very intelligent. They're definitely "persons", but they're also definitely dogs. They're really good at being dogs, and we shouldn't assume that the "personhood" of dogs makes them able to function independently in human society any more than our "personhood" would enable us to function successfully as a member of a pack of wolves. They should be protected under the law the same way that children are, IMO, because they need supervision to live successfully in our society, but they're not just fluffy coffee tables.


Wish I could "Like" this. This is an intelligent response.

Michelle Medina

Michelle, I agree with you completely! We live, therefore we feel.
Ashlea, you can say you love animals all you want. Ovbiously you haven't spent any time with them. Anyone and I mean, anyone who has, realizes that they have emotions. As someone else said, jealousy, fear, love and ecstasy.
The only reason why we seek studies at all is because we're to lacking in smarts to see it without a study.
Don't get me wrong, alot of us do see it, but those who don't won't take our word for it so we need studies and then people still question them.
I'm all for questioning most things, but there are some things that we all ought to know should not be.
Violence, abuse (in any form, directed at anyone or anything), and war are just 3 I can think of.
Here's to more studies and eventually affording animals the same rights we do people!

Bob Roberts

Of course MOST animals feel emotions ! Even if you try to catch a chicken it will run from you... out of fear. FEAR IS AN EMOTION...


Dr. Elliot M. Katz has been a proponent of this same thing for years and has had success getting cities to change their language in the city charters from "animal owner" to "animal guardian" in his guardian campaign. When I was younger I was told I was anthropomorphizing. Turns out I was wasn't. Anyone who has been close to a dog or cat knows absolutely that they understand and feel the same things we do. Finally the mainstream is addressing this issue.

Jane Salta

Study or no study, we are the guardians of our pets not their owners. We are animals too remember. Some of us were slaves and owned. We must treat other species with respect. They do not have speech but some of us do not have speech, hearing, eyesight etc. Some of us are mentally disabled. No one should be owned or property, including pets. We are their guardians here on Earth.

P. Wisor

It didn't take me that long to know that my dogs have the ability to show emotion. I don't "own" my dogs, they share my home, my life, they are part of my family, always have been for however long they have been entrusted into my care before they cross over the Rainbow Bridge. They show love, compassion, sadness, worry, fear, are fearlees when it comes to protecting someone in their family, and are loyal in no way any other living being can be. They only ask for love in return, and we, as humans are the only living beings that treat them in horrid ways that, thank God, most of us cannot imagine, and still they will crawl on their bellies to lick the hand that has just doled out that punishment. And you had to conduct an experiment to see if dogs had emotions?