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 The findings, some still preliminary and unpublished, lead to the title of the piece, Dogs are People Too: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.)