Do dogs have feelings similar to humans? Scientist Gregory Berns has been studying the brains of dogs for several years and his findings have lead him to the conclusion “dogs are people, too.”
The neuroscientist at Emory University wrote an essay in the New York Times that explains his research. His recent findings bring up compelling questions about the nature of emotions in dogs.
Berns and his fellow researchers have been taking MRI brain scans of dogs for the past two years. The dogs first needed to be trained to be calm inside the claustrophobic device so they could be scanned while fully awake and unrestrained.
Using positive reinforcement techniques, the dogs learned how to sit still in the MRI. This allowed scientists to take active “pictures” of the canine brain. The first trained dog was Berns’ own rescue dog Callie.
After monitoring a dozen dogs Berns found that there was a striking similarity between the canine brain and human brain in the region of the brain called the caudate nucleus. This area of the brain is key in anticipating positive thoughts. This can include things that humans enjoy such as food, love, money.
“In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite,” writes Berns. “But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.”
Berns’ research brings up difficult questions about animal consciousness and emotion and how they are treated by humans. As animals are a big part of animal research and business enterprises (such as puppy mills), Berns’ research raises interesting ethical questions.
Berns points out that presently dogs are considered “property” as the Animal Welfare Act of 1966. However, if dogs have emotions similar to young children, then shouldn’t they be afforded protection from exploitation?
Berns has written a few books based on his research, How Dogs Love Us:A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain and What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. Both are available through Amazon.