Dogs Are People, Too

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FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.

Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.

Because dogs can’t speak, scientists have relied on behavioral observations to infer what dogs are thinking. It is a tricky business. You can’t ask a dog why he does something. And you certainly can’t ask him how he feels. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.

Until now.

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

Written By: Gregory Berns
continue to source article at nytimes.com

41 COMMENTS

  1. Dogs are people? With poetic licence perhaps, but ‘people’ ordinarily refers specifically to humans, distinguished by rational consciousness. Still, I am in sympathy with the article in advocating a review of our attitude towards dogs and other animals in view of the new evidence being produced from the scanning of dogs’ brain activity. It has always been evident at a common-sense level that dogs and other comparable animals (even cats!) have emotions and feelings and affective attitudes towards others. They are certainly not things (as opposed to persons), and I for one have always wondered how, for example, René Descartes could regard animals as mere soulless automata. Obviously, he had little to do with animals and was guided only by his particular theoretical argument based on the dualism named after him, according to which the rational consciousness distinctive of a human being is due to an immaterial entity residing in the human body. Once that dualism is discarded (through empathy with animals and as a result of growing understanding of how the brain generates consciousness), one sees clearly that, though they may not have the rational abilities of a human, dogs share many mental processes and experiences with us humans and thus have minds, consciousness, intelligence, emotions, feelings, affective attitudes towards others, all of which is overlooked if they are regarded only as things, machines, automata. Given the lack of conscious rationality in dogs, I do not see how they can be classified as persons (or people), but we clearly do have to find a new legal class appropriate for such sentient beings.

    • From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. 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. Same as any human volunteer.

      Seems fair enough to me. Dogs have minds of their own, even if they aren’t equipped to deal with human society. I could see the same procedure being done for a mentally handicapped human out of fairness and concern for their welfare.

      The caudate nucleus section was what I was looking for: using knowledge of neural function to examine non-human subjects and gauge their cognitive capabilities, which seems to me to be the least objectionable next step in the cognitive science of animals. I don’t feel satisfied by it, however. It’ll require the neuroscientific equivalent of a Human Genome Project before we can start accurately confirming how minds in general work, especially when it comes to examining novel structures in other minds, and reverse-engineering the brain’s basic coding system could take decades.

      The second half of the article I found pretty interesting, in a “kinda-agree, kinda-disagree” sense:

      DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.

      But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, 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.

      One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of “guardian” to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.

      If we went a step further and granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

      I suspect that society is many years away from considering dogs as persons. However, recent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.

      Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.

      I don’t know how a rights debate would play out, though given it would require some familiarity with cognitive science, I can’t see the pro-rights side becoming a mainstream position. In particular, I think it’s most controversial aspect would be its application to non-domesticated animals, especially those we consider pests, parasites, and predators. And it would depend critically on what the popular answers towards such philosophical conundrums as sentience and free will shall be when the debates occur. I doubt dualism and libertarianism are going away any time soon, nor that they’ll particularly welcome this kind of research or favour animal rights.

      In reply to #2 by Cairsley:

      Dogs are people? With poetic licence perhaps, but ‘people’ ordinarily refers specifically to humans, distinguished by rational consciousness.

      I think from context, especially based on the second page, that it’s not meant to imply humans and dogs are identical, but that dogs are beings with rights of their own. He meant it as a counter to the notion that a dog is a creature of human use or for human good, and therefore that a dog’s welfare should be considered for its own sake rather than as something to appease while we use the animal. That said, it is a poor way to begin an article, especially given the bad word choice, and especially given the delay for the explanation.

  2. My first spaniel, who died last year, had a differential diagnosis of caudate nucleus degeneration so I found this article interesting for that reason and it raised some questions for me that likely don’t have answers yet. Thank you for it.

    Mike

  3. Yes, I think dogs are people too.

    Dogs.
    Dr Nick Branson of Deakin University headed the Australian Working Dog Survey which looked at the 2000 year old traditional training and treatment of dogs used for work and sport, revealing alarming results. Pups react to violent, biblical-style training in a similar fashion to juvenile humans. A punitive, violent upbringing will frequently induce a fearful, obedient character occasionally for life, but also occasionally one who may suddenly bite. We notice this occasionally when formerly obedient pets suddenly react like a canine Timothy McVeigh. http://www.deakin.edu.au/research/stories/2010/12/09/time-to-teach-some-old-dogs-new-tricks
    “One major concern is an overemphasis on the use of a corrective approach to dog training, where there is an over-emphasis on punishment is used as a training tool, rather than teaching the dog through positive reinforcement,” said Dr Branson. “The high level of punishment used in training dogs is very disturbing and suggests that trainers do not understand the long-term welfare implications of using these techniques and devices on their dogs,” warned the RSPCA’s Chief Scientist Dr Bidda Jones.

    Elephants.
    Well now, what d’ya know? Who would’a thought elephants would occasionally react to biblical-styled obedience training just as badly as some dogs and humans will do. 2000 years of traditional training with the ankus and suddenly elephants began crushing their mahouts. Dr Andrew McLean travelled to Nepal, the Vatican of elephant training -“To encourage ethical, sustainable relationships between elephants and humans by providing educational programmes on the biological needs of elephants” which is now spreading throughout Asia. http://www.aebc.com.au/elephants
    To young elephants someone brandishing the dreaded ankus looks like an angry nun with a leather strap. “Mahouts are taught the use of learning theory and the principles of training that arise from this knowledge.”

    Humans.
    Many years before Andrew McLean’s equitation science became appreciated for elephants, scientists had warned us that children were harmed by violent, biblical parenting with a 2000 year tradition. Before Dr Branson’s research most working dogs survived their biblical upbringing, just as most elephants and humans reliably manage to do. “Spanking never affected me” is the slogan most frequently heard, “and me dog respects me too” they say, confusing obedience for respect.

    Only two dozen countries have renounced violent, biblical parenting for a science-based, rational model. Most countries had agreed to reform by 2009 but few have done so. Australia produced McLean and Branson’s work on dogs, elephants and horses, yet remains delinquent to her obligation to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    When people realize people are like dogs, both people and dogs will have more respect for each other.

  4. This is a terrible article. Why? Because it shows a ‘scientist’ presenting ‘science’ in an OPINION column. (see top of original article). Before we get to any science experiments in the article, it is clear that the experimenter has made up his mind as to the conclusion. He is an animal lover with a dog, and so his judgement is not sound.

    Richard Feynman’s rule one in science: ‘You should never set out to prove something you think – but just play around and see what comes out.’ (roughly paraphrased) And this article is exactly the reason why that is true. It’s unsurprising that a few brain areas lighting up on a screen are interpreted as animals having emotion by someone looking for that result. I’m not dismissing the concept of the experiment, just the biased presentation; this article should be in the pseudoscience section until proper results are presented and analysed critically in the right context.

    The worst bit is where he concludes “Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite.” before going on to conclude that “Dogs and many other animals seem to have emotions too”.

    • In reply to #7 by kga:

      This is a terrible article. Why? Because it shows a ‘scientist’ presenting ‘science’ in an OPINION column. (see top of original article). Before we get to any science experiments in the article, it is clear that the experimenter has made up his mind as to the conclusion. He is an animal lover with a…

      Nicely put. How often I hear dog/cat/rabbit owners saying “He understands every word I say, you know”?

      With all due respect(!)… bullshit!

    • In reply to #8 by Stafford Gordon:

      I have always had an affinity with dogs. They certainly are childlike in their playfulness, which they never really loose.

      Fascinating research.

      Yes, I thought so too.

      It’s hard to sell science anyway and neuroscience disturbs most people, especially when associated with non-people. Greg Burns would appreciate the framing issue already and he appears to have chosen an economical method. He’s managed to publicise the function of the mirror neurons, dopamine and the caudate nucleus without anyone necessarily noticing.

      Selling climate science illustrates the problem of persuading people and Burns is both a psychologist and a distinguished professor of adult psychiatry, so he has carefully framed his findings to appeal to readers of the NY Times. His success is apparent, with children in my antipodean street, a day ahead of New York, chattering about having seen it on FaceBook.

      Despite some tone-sensitive atheists calling his findings bullshit, Burns has broken through to a popular global audience with this article. I think he’d be very satisfied with that political breakthrough.

      Burns would likely write an article differently for this forum, with another title.

  5. Yay, tell it again,brother! Let’s drink a toast to our canine cousins.

    Get rid of speciecism.It has held sway for far too long.Man having dominion over the earth! Arrogance and cruelty we can do without.Let’s share the planet with our brethren who evolved in a different direction.

    Have to admit that I love my little dog a lot more than lots of people.

  6. Phooey! Anthropomorphising at its stupidest. I love dogs too but this isn’t good science.

    It has been long known and accepted that many animals have well-developed emotions
    and it’s a good thing we recognise it, but that does not mean dog=human or even chimp
    =human. Allowing our emotions to make these conclusions is hardly rational thought.

    • In reply to #10 by Billy Joe:

      Phooey! Anthropomorphising at its stupidest. I love dogs too but this isn’t good science.

      It has been long known and accepted that many animals have well-developed emotions
      and it’s a good thing we recognise it, but that does not mean dog=human or even chimp
      =human. Allowing our emotions to make th…

      That “=” sign is oversimplified in your argument.

      • In reply to #14 by tejas_gokhale01:

        In reply to #10 by Billy Joe:

        Phooey! Anthropomorphising at its stupidest. I love dogs too but this isn’t good science.

        It has been long known and accepted that many animals have well-developed emotions
        and it’s a good thing we recognise it, but that does not mean dog=human or even chimp
        =human. A…

        “Dogs are people” therefore Dog=Person; please explain your objection!

    • In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:

      I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.

      Can’t stand dogs either. Doesn’t add anything to the debate, just wanted to show solidarity.

      • In reply to #22 by bob_e_s:

        In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:

        I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.

        Can’t stand dogs either. Doesn’t add anything to the debate, just wanted to show solidarity.

        Thanks bro.

    • In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:

      I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.

      LOL. Apex Disorder, I suspect you are really a cat pretending to be a “person”.

      PS: Dogs and cats do have “thumbs”. It’s called a dewclaw.

  7. Dogs or any other animal you care to mention have just as much right to live out life on this planet as a human. As an animal lover, I hate that fact that religious bigots think that certain animals are unclean. I don’t care which animal is unclean they have a place in the balance of nature and therefore we are not the most important speices on this planet. Enought said !

    • In reply to #17 by Rosbif:

      Dogs are far to nice to be people.

      Excellent point.

      Otherness frightens people, even atheist pedants. It’s prodromal theism.

      Extending rights to anyone other than themselves is inherently threatening because they imagine their own rights will become necessarily diluted.
      Anybody ever actively supporting enhanced rights, whether to gays or to dogs, is seen as an activist prosecuting the thin edge of the some takeover strategy.

      MRI scans failed to differentiate specific dog brain function from those equivalent functions inside the heads of humans, so the results must be bullshit.

      Climatologists are denigrated as Tree Huggers or Greenpeace sympathizers, while neuroscientists practice ‘pop psychology’ or bullshit science when they defend dogs. Fear of dogs, some of whom are Nazis, is similar to any other phobia. If we permit dogs personhood, who will be next to demand equality? Maybe wolves, and who knows where that could lead?

  8. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

    Because people aren’t experimented on and don’t run races?

    There is a clear agenda here that obscures what could be very meaningful research. Get rid of all the cute and cuddly. Set it up so that it is blind or double blind and get rid of the bias.

    I have had lots of pets and have to tell you all that dogs seem to be most in tune with humans. Maybe it is a “mirror neuron” situation, maybe they are sentient. however, shitty science is not the way to go about proving it.

    • In reply to #18 by crookedshoes:

      Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.

      Because people aren’t experimented on and don’t run races?

      There is a clear agenda here that obscures what could be very meaningful research. Get rid of all the cute and cu…

      FYI, “mirror neurons” don’t have anything to do with empathy. It’s one of those pop psych ideas like saying one side of the brain is creative and the other is analytical. I left a quote from Pinker on this a while back.

      I agree with your comment. This article was terrible, I’ve had dogs that I feel closer to than most people, I even named my user ID after one of them, but the idea that other animals have all the same cognitive capabilities as humans is nonsense. And the question shouldn’t be framed as “our research will show that dogs are people too” but to understand how dogs and other animals think and understand how it’s similar and different from humans.

      And we don’t need to prove how smart dogs are to realize that the way we treat them and the way we treat many other animals right now is often barbaric and needs serious reform. But to frame that animal rights issue as saying we need to start having consent forms for dogs is the kind of foolish gesture that people at PETA do all the time that marginalizes the animal rights movement.

  9. In reply to #22 by bob_e_s:

    In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.Can’t stand dogs either. Doesn’t add anything to the debate, just wanted to show solidarity.

    I like cats and dogs equally, can I be in both teams?

    • So, you are bi?

      In reply to #25 by Seraphor:

      In reply to #22 by bobes:

      In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.Can’t stand dogs either. Doesn’t add anything to the debate, just wanted to show solidarity.

      I li…

  10. Interesting but I am skeptical.

    I can’t remember the woman’s name but right here on RD.net there was a featured link of a neuroscientist giving a lecture on being wary of MRI scans and when people use the word neuroscience.

  11. @ Red Dog,
    I get it, thanks for pointing out the mirror neuron thing…. i think dogs have evolved very elaborate mechanisms for reading and endearing themselves to humans. This researcher is going all “cabbage patch kids” in their pursuit of a truth. This raises red flags with me. However, I do think the endeavor is both interesting and worthwhile. Perhaps a revised protocol and some added researchers to do the actual data collection and statistical evaluations……

    • In reply to #28 by crookedshoes:

      @ Red Dog,
      I get it, thanks for pointing out the mirror neuron thing…. i think dogs have evolved very elaborate mechanisms for reading and endearing themselves to humans. This researcher is going all “cabbage patch kids” in their pursuit of a truth. This raises red flags with me. However, I do…

      I agree completely. The research sounds fascinating, I just hate the way it is presented.

  12. In reply to #23 by NearlyNakedApe:

    In reply to #15 by ApexDisorder:

    I am the one “person” here who dislikes dogs….Grow some thumbs you hairy freaks..Pussey Rules….That doesn’t have thumbs neither. I digress.

    LOL. Apex Disorder, I suspect you are really a cat pretending to be a “person”.

    PS: Dogs and cats do have “thumbs”. It’s…

    A thumb is not a dewclaw, a dewclaw is not a thumb…

  13. We are not the only creatures with pain receptors (nociceptors) and
    nor are we the only creatures to have a reward circuitry in our brain!
    That is to say that the bodily parts responsible for concerning sensations like pain are much older than
    our young species.
    We should take care to offer other creatures the same protection we have over such nasty experiences by
    NOT consuming animal products.

    We can make a difference by no longer consuming meat, dairy, eggs, fish and other animal products!

  14. In reply to #31 by Terra Watt:

    We can make a difference by no longer consuming meat, dairy, eggs, fish and other animal products!

    Good luck with that.

    Animal products, a bit tricky, but possible.
    Meat, sure thing, don’t need meat!

    Dairy, eggs and fish, now that’s a bit trickier. You could probably eliminate one or two of those, but to rid yourself of all three, then in order to make sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet you’ll be relying on a vast array of nuts and pulses, many of which have been farmed or picked by slaves in the third world and then transported by air or ship to us. Soy, quinoa, lentils, chickpeas, all the result of poorly paid manual labour, some of which has destroyed their local economies or ecosystems, and then they’re flown half-way around the world to find their way in your local Waitrose or health food store.
    In comparison, the widescale farming of these is far more damaging to the environment than say, locally farming free-range chickens for their eggs.

    This is the trouble when you tackle a problem from a ideological point of view, rather than looking as it rationally.

    The least damaging and most humane method of farming protein rich foods, is free-range chickens for eggs, free-range cows for milk and controlled fishing, and maybe forraging for any nuts you can find yourself. Everything else either harms animals (as you’ve alluded to), harms other humans in the form of exploitation of the third world, or harms the environment in the form of air miles.

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