Neuroscientist: Brain imaging may prove “dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.”

Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows they are sentient beings, capable of fostering an emotional bond with people.  But now science may be catching up with this widely held belief.  A neuroscientist wrote an opinion piece in Saturday’s New York Times about a new MRI study of awake dog brains:

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.


By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states.

The author initially trained his own shelter dog to participate in the MRI study and eventually got a dozen dogs from the community involved.  The findings, some still preliminary and unpublished, lead to the title of the piece, Dogs are People Too:

In dogs, we found that activity in the [region of the brain called 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.


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

If brain imaging research could one day convince judges and lawmakers that dogs are sentient beings with a right to live, I’m all for it.  Although the author looks specifically at the issue of ownership vs. guardianship for dogs, it seems apparent to me that the findings could be applied in preventing so-called shelters from killing dogs.

But until science and the law reflect what we already know to be true, it remains our responsibility to try and protect pets in pounds from having their right to live violated.  The fact that so many shelter directors and their enablers currently defend the killing of animals considered to be family members is proof positive that legal changes are required.  You can’t shame people into doing the right thing when they have no shame.

(Thanks Karen J for the link.)

3 thoughts on “Neuroscientist: Brain imaging may prove “dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.”

  1. Well, it’d be nice if science could back us up on what we know to be true…

    I must say that I am grateful for scientists who work to find humane methods to conduct their research. Reminds me of the scientist who wanted to know how cats see, so instead of sticking things in their brains and cutting up their eyeballs (like so many scientists before him), he trained cats to indicate to him “yes, I can see that” or “no, I can’t see that” and then showed them images and just “asked” them what they could see…the cats would come out of their cages and dutifully run to the testing area on their own, because they knew rewards would come from their “work” and they were happy to do it. I wish I could remember the guy’s name, but saw the special on TV many years ago and it was his methodology that impressed me.

    1. Yeah, hate what animals go through in the name of science sometimes. Thanks for sharing about the scientist who actually cared about his “subjects”. Of course, he probably would have trouble getting funding today with some of the “research” that is being done!

      I am thinking that if they could do an IQ test on dogs, scientists would find that many of them test higher than a whole lot of people, too. Probably a whole lot more compassionate!

  2. University research departments and well-run research companies have animal welfare committees, which include not just scientists but also community members and animal welfare representatives, and which have to give approval for any experiments using animals. There will also be a librarian or a scientist to research the literature to find alternative methods to study whatever the particular question is. Over time, the frequency of experiments that require the sacrifice of the animals has declined and will continue to decline. Computer modeling gets better and better, and is a good substitute for more and more things. And even when real animals are needed, often fewer animals can be used, and it is less likely to be necessary to sacrifice them. I don’t believe we’ll ever reach a day when no live subjects are needed, or that none of them will need to be sacrificed. The numbers have declined a lot, though, and they’ll continue to decline.

    For eight years, I was the librarian in a biotech R&D company, and among other responsibilities I supported the animal welfare committee. One thing that might surprise you is that we routinely adopted out retired lab rabbits as pets. The tests that used rabbits didn’t require that they be sacrificed, so about twice a year they were put up for adoption.

    There are badly run research companies, and companies that aren’t really doing “research” at all. There are universities that use properly sources animals protected by animal care and use committees for research, and animals from class B dealers to teach students. There are vet schools that don’t see the ethical problem with training the students in surgery with pound seizure animals who are subjected to multiple unnecessary surgeries and then killed without ever waking up again. It’s not all sweetness and light.

    But standards of animal care in research have been rising for thirty years, and professional standards and peer pressure and the advance of technology mean that animal research is not nearly as likely as was once the case to be the horror it’s so easy to imagine it being.

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