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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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Ashlea Jackson

In an experiment such as this, you would need to have mass numbers, not just 12. Ask anyone doing a research experiment, the smaller the numbers, the more skewed the data becomes. I'm for protecting and making animals happy, but this seems to be a stretch.
I don't really see how the dogs could leave the MRI sessions if you are tempting them with treats either. If you had to choose between being at home or getting treats for sitting still, which would you choose?
This information is also biased in that the researcher used his own dog. I like the believe that my cat speaks to me. And we do have a relationship, as all pet owners usually do. I can connect to my pet, but that doesn't put their intelligence at par. The lowest members of human society base their actions off of emotions. Violence stems from lack of control on emotions vs. logic.
What if the dogs are not intelligent enough to be trained to sit inside the scanner? Then do they not qualify for being considered a person?
And what are the similarities between the canine and human caudate nucleus; as compared to what? I'm not sure if every animal has one, but it has been proven that you can live if a portion is taken out. People even do experiments to see what effect taking portions out has.
The caudate nucleus is where dopamine neurons are, so the study is merely stating that dogs receive dopamine when we hand them treats, when they smell us, or the like. Which is obvious because they get excited over us, just as we do over them. It's a communication link. If you knew someone who always brought you cookies, you would send dopamine signals every time they showed up too.
The study states that it doesn't prove that dogs have a love for humans, or even that they necessarily have emotions. We all feel it though. As a student studying in the field of science, this is a very lacking experiment that needs many follow-ups. However, the article states that if dogs truly do have emotions such as humans, it puts them at a young child's understanding. This could be quite true, but most primates are all ready on this level by intelligence alone, not including emotion, and we still treat them the same.
Just my thoughts. I love animals though.


Doesn't sound like you have a true understanding of dogs. If you've owned one looks like you never really connected. For someone like you it's "ownership" not living together in harmony with another being that enrich our lives in countless ways that are indescribable.


You hit the nail on the head with that one......good for you

Teresa in Tx

My belief from experience of the way I treat my dogs, they have great emotion. .. happy, sad, depressed, nervousness and so on.. More emotion than some people I know. It also depends on how they are treated and raised. I talk to my dogs like babies or children. Show them lots of love. They learn this and show those emotions back. Even tho they can't speak, I feel their thoughts. They bring so much joy to my life, except for the pain when i lose them, I will always have a dog. I just lost a little one I rescued from the side of the road, she accidentally got out and got ran over. Last year I held her for 5 days nursing her back to health after eating rat poison when I was told by the vet she wouldn't live without a blood transfusion, and likely not then. She lived, and her emotion towards me was so deep. No one will ever convince me they have no emotion, or even limited emotion. Also, I will only have rescue dogs in my future, they need us.


I absolutely agree with Anonymous. You have to bond and connect with your dog to feel their emotions.


I don't need a study to know what emotions my dog experiences. I know when she's happy, excited or scared of something. I can tell who she loves. I don't have any children so she is my child and I don't think of her as property at all. Maybe you should go by what you see instead of actual data. Seems like you just want everyone to think you are smart. Just my thoughts...


Ashlea, great thoughts. I am a dog lover also and have a very strong emotional connection to my dog but you are spot on that equating chemical activity in the same part of the brain as humans says nothing about a dogs intelligence. And further, what does it mean to be a person, that we have emotions, that we have a chemical reaction in a certain part of the brain when fed positive stimuli?? Simply having emotions is a totally different thing than possessing the ability to process thoughts in a logical manner and to make decisions based on logic and not solely on emotions. Its precisely the fact that we have the ability and the will to debate these kind of subjects that sets us apart. So many egregious logical fallacies with the conclusion of this study.


Maybe animals do not think the same as humans do, but that does not mean they aren't feeling the same things we feel. Just because humans can make decisions based on logic doesn't make them better then animals either. Let's look at some of the horrific act's humans have done to animals, do animals mistreat us like that? Animals are our best friends when they are treated as such. Hurt them as with anything and of course they can become dangerous. Animals have some thought process, emotions and logic it just doesn't happen to be as sophisticated as humans. Was our's always this sophisticated?

Bob from MA

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Ashlea. I think animals are capable of basic emotions such as fear and anger, but not the more abstract ones, such as spite, revenge, etc. It's one thing to romanticize about the emotional capabilities of animals, but all you have to do is a realilty check. If they were as intelligent as some would have us believe, their behaviors would surely advance beyond their present primitive and uncivilized actions. Anthropomorphism seems to be rampant.


While I understand what you are saying regarding scientific method and agree with this particular aspect, having lived with 12 dogs for their full lifetime and with another 37 for between 3 months to 3 years, I don't need a study to tell me that dogs have emotions and intelligence. The various intelligence levels, compliance with behavioral commands and all other aspects of their emotional, behavioral and intelligence levels corresponds exactly to those of the HUMAN POPULATION. They have the same variables in these areas as we do. Even people refuse MRI, CT,X-ray and other medical tests while some do not. The only thing needed to prove these facts to humans who deny these qualities in dogs and other animals is a better scientific test. Better yet, they should try having feelings themselves and becoming human again. My parrot has more intelligence, predictable emotional responses and a higher intelligence level than most 7 year olds I know. He also understands language and is able to communicate with me and strangers as well as effectively as they do. People who fail to accept these facts about animals do so because if they don't it would mean that they'd have to change their ways. To do anything less would create an ethical and moral conflict for them.