A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How Dogs Really Think and Feel

border-collie-100813It seems obvious to most of us that dogs (and other animals) share the same kinds of emotions as we humans. But how do we really know?

After all, when it comes to protecting them from abuses like being used for laboratory experiments, we need scientific evidence to show that they are as cognitively and emotionally advanced as they appear to be.

After he adopted Callie, a shy terrier mix, neuroscientist Gregory Berns decided to use his professional expertise to help answer age-old questions like “What’s my dog really thinking?” and “Does she have the same kinds of emotions I do?”

The results of his study are remarkable.

Certainly there have been hundreds of behavior studies that help to reveal what goes on in the mind of nonhuman animals. Some of these are the kind you can try at home and are quite benign – e.g. the ongoing work of Marc Bekoff with dogs. Others are horribly invasive and unethical.

Rene Descartes, the infamous 17th-Century French Catholic philosopher scientist, asserted that animals were nothing more than biological machines, unthinking and unfeeling. If you hit them and they cried out, he argued, it wasn’t because they really felt anything; it was more like a door squeaking on its hinges.

Rather than the naysayers having to prove that animals don’t have emotions and consciousness, the burden of proof has been placed on scientists to prove that they do.Descartes had an enormous influence on Western science and philosophy in terms of how we rationalize the way we abuse animals and turn them into commodities that exist almost entirely for our benefit.

As a result, rather than the naysayers having to prove that animals don’t have emotions and consciousness, the burden of proof has been placed on scientists to prove that they do. And since we humans have difficulty in proving even that we can know what’s going on in each other’s minds, requiring a scientist to prove what’s in the mind of a nonhuman is setting quite a high bar.

Gregory Berns, however, has taken a fascinating and important step in just that direction.

His new book, How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain (due out October 22nd), tells the story of how he used his professional expertise to study the brains of dogs using an M.R.I. scanner. And he did it with the full, conscious cooperation of Callie and the other dogs in the study.

M.R.I. (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanners are big, noisy, somewhat scary machines. So Berns, with the help of dog trainer Mark Spivak, had to teach the dogs to be comfortable walking into the scanner and sitting absolutely still. As he describes it in a promo of the book:

We started teaching Callie to go into an M.R.I. simulator that I built in my living room. She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold rock-still for periods of up to 30 seconds. Oh, and she had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

Berns focused on a key area of the brain: the caudate nucleus.

Specific parts of the caudate stand out for their consistent activation to many things that humans enjoy. Caudate activation is so consistent that under the right circumstances, it can predict our preferences for food, music and even beauty.

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. 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.

The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.

Berns is already getting pushback from researchers who have a vested interest in treating animals as commodities and laboratory specimens. He’s careful to say that his tests don’t offer conclusive evidence of anything. But by any standard, he’s taken an enormous step forward.

Even more important, he uses his discoveries to argue that we can no longer treat nonhuman animals as simply pieces of property – items that can be used and abused for our own benefit. He argues, instead, that it’s time to consider dogs as “legal persons.”

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.

Berns doesn’t see that happening tomorrow. But the view that it’s time to toss out our age-old pretensions and the classic speciesism of Rene Descartes is rapidly gathering steam .

Before this year is out, we expect the Nonhuman Rights Project to file its first-of-a-kind lawsuit on behalf of a nonhuman animal, petitioning a court to recognize that a cognitively advanced animal – probably a chimpanzee or an elephant – has the legal right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity. (Meaning you can’t hold them captive and you can’t do invasive research on them.)

Berns is correct in saying that we don’t have the scientific evidence yet to make that move on behalf of dogs. But with the kind of evidence that he and Callie are producing, along with the work that will advance the cause of personhood for great apes and a few other species, that day is drawing ever closer.