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




Since we are talking about dogs I will try to base my comments on dogs.
If anybody still believes that dogs do not have emotions or feelings, I really feel bad for them, it is incredible that people, can still make this argument, and specially scientist or people studying to be a scientist, to me it is pure hypocrisy. These people want to continue to convince us that these animals have no feelings or emotions so it is still justifiable to use these creatures for our own benefit with the excuse that they do not feel, so the torture, abuse and other horrible actions can be brought upon animals with no consequences. To me it's simple, humans are cruel, selfish and self centered and if we need to use animals for how great they taste, to perform for us in circuses or movies, or to kill them and hunt them for their body parts or just for the fun of it, or to hang them on the wall, and many other selfish, unnecessary actions, humans will continue to do so, that is the nature of humans, to do things just because it pleases us, because we think is fun, because we think it will make us younger, more sexually active, and other nonsense that we can justify their abuse, not because it is a necessity. Yes it's true animals can not fly to the moon or type a letter, or better yet tell you how much it hurts when they are tortured, animals cannot tell you when a baby animal is taken away from his mother how painful this is for thm,animals cannot tell you how much it hurts when tigers are killed for parts of their body, or other horrible things that humans do to them, but just like dogs, they feel, have emotions, care for their young, and want to have a life of wellness just like we people want. We are not that much more special than animals are. Have compassion, for dogs and all animals, they deserve our respect and compassion. Lets stop making excuses and coming up with stupid reasons for cruel actions towards them for how cruel we humans are or can be. For you, the ones wondering, yes, I am a vegetarian, I do not wear anything that comes , or is made from any animal parts, I do not go to the circus, or watch movies in which animals are used, I do my very best to do my homework and find as much as possible about the products I use, or buy, the food I eat, and yes the main reason I did it it's because I do love animals, all animals, I do not want to have anything to do with putting pain or being part of the terrible abuse of animals. So yes I am doing my part and try very hard everyday to do so, I do it with pleasure, and it is the best feeling. We can all do our part. Please people try.


Not only dogs, animals like whales, dolphins, pigs, primates, just to name a few, deserve the right -as comprehensive scientific reasearch can show- of being considered non human persons. And if you get to know any of those wonderful animals (lets not forget about cats :) you can really tell they are capable of having emotions and feelings.

If you believe animals rights should be defended, please take the time to sign this important petition! "Tell the world that animals matter: back a Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare"


I have a dream ... that one day all living beings will be treated with respect. That pro-life will not just mean pro-human life. That the genocide of miilions of companian animals will come to an end.

And I found it interesting that Ashlea Jackson said that the "lowest members of the human society base" base their actions off of emotions. Who are the lowest members? Who determined that they were the lowest?


I am an older person living with four keenly intelligent canines and two magnificent felines. we communicate beautifully without words and I am totally amazed by any person doubting the emotions of these wonderful devoted companions!! Can anyone please explain to me ,when my grandfather passed away, his devoted cocker spaniel refused to eat and passed away, despite my grandmothers love and medical aid of their veterinarian, shortly thereafter? perhaps it was some sort of brain chemical that exists in the lowest of life forms, quite common I suppose. I for one believe with every fiber of my being that all animals have true emotions and should be treated as such. god forgive our arrogance!!


I would love to see if any group has thought to or is already working on legislation that makes it illegal to not accept pets into apartments/lease situations. They have to take kids by law and kids are capable of making just as much of a mess as a dog or cat. Does anyone know if this is in the works anywhere?


Dogs should be categorized as human not property. This will enable the animal abuse laws to be toughened up. I really believe from what I have seen and heard that dogs are on a higher level of conciousness the we are. I have seen dogs sniff out disease.I dont think we undestand the capabilities of dogs. It is due to our owen stuipedness that we are unable to comprehend what dogs are really about.Personally, I would rather hang out with my dog then most people I know.


Science has known for some time now that dogs, as well as many other mammals, have a limbic system in their brains. It is this system that controls emotions in humans and other mammals alike. Just because animals are not able to display their emotions in exactly the same ways humans do does not give us the right to deny they have emotions. Just watch a dog that has been left in a shelter too long; they get outwardly DEPRESSED. My cat looks at me with so much love in his eyes even a neighbor commented on it without my saying anything about it initially.

Ashlea, why are questioning a dog's intelligence because he won't stay in an MRI scanner? Maybe the dog is AFRAID (yet another emotion). Dogs get aggressive when they fear something or someone.

You need to spend A WHOLE LOT more time with animals and do a whole lot more studying because you have a very long way to go before you truly understand animals.

tony brown

Yes they do! Just for one instance, my oldest baby actually cries if her smaller, younger sister gets attention before she does. Her beautiful eyes will fill and tears roll down. I HATE that.

Donna Lenhart

Of course dogs have emotions - all animals do! I don't need any study to abolutely know that. They feel the same happiness, fear, anger, love, grief that humans do. For anyone to say otherwise is foolish and ignorant.

Barbara Stewart

Bill Whorton stated the issue succinctly and, in my belief, correctly - thank you. Putting aside all of the emotional responses we all feel about our personal pets and animals in general, the issue is how to get appropriate legislation enacted to properly categorize them in our society to consequently afford them the protections they deserve, such as we have for children and the disabled. I see so many of these blogs on animal issues that so many people respond to because we all feel so strongly about them. How many of us, I wonder, are putting as much effort into doing something about it? Do we write to or call (properly, intelligently and politely - not just ranting) our legislators stating our positions? The current farm bill is up right now for vote and needs our STRONG opposition to the King Amendment trying to get attached to it. I'm also hoping many of us are following - and contributing - to vital organizations actively working for animal legal welfare, such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Animal welfare activists are a growing segment of our society, but we need to put our efforts collectively where they can do the greatest good for our cause. We can make changes happen without questionable scientific studies.