Your dog is a person, too

By Tracie Korol

We are now floating in the sea change where dogs, in earlier centuries regarded as pests or property, later to become helpmates and co-workers, are now not even companions and friends. Now, they are family.  And as family, they are often taking on more responsibilities than most of your run-of-the mill two-legged people. Assistance animals treat high blood pressure, provide diabetic monitoring, detect cancers and make enormous contributions to the management of autism.  Canine warriors lay down their lives on the battlefield and in inner city combat zones. When they cuddle on the couch with us in the evenings, they fill in the emotional gaps in our increasingly technological world.

As any of us who has agreed to the contract of dog ownership knows, the dog in our house IS part of the family and is most likely, much more loveable and enjoyable than some of their human counterparts.  But can we can so far as to think of them as fur-covered people?  Sure.

After training dozens of dogs to lie still in MRI machines and scanning their brains in active reaction to various stimuli, neuroeconomics professor Gregory Burns goes so far as to come to the conclusion that “dogs are people, too.” Unlike behavioral analyses, Burns’s work provides actual neurological evidence that dogs experience consciousness and emotions at a level comparable to humans. He did so after training dogs (with the help of Mark Spivak) for months to be comfortable inside MRI scanners — and having them wear earmuffs to protect their sensitive hearing from the 95 decibels of noise the scanner makes.

That a dog would consent to a scan without the whingeing, complaining and anxieties made by people in MRI machines, is testimony enough for me.

After analyzing the scans, Burns was struck by the similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region called the caudate nucleus. Without getting too technical, the caudate is that area of the brain that flashes when we experience the anticipation of things we enjoy — like food, music or beauty. 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.  In dogs, the caudate flashes in response to food (well, yes), the scent of familiar humans as well as shows a reaction when the beloved human momentarily steps out of view, among others.

Many of the same things that activate the human caudate also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it appears to be an indication of canine emotions.  The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, means that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat we treat the smallest family member and generally, dogs at large.

For most of civilized time, dogs were considered property, like rakes and washing machines. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, it 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 MRI results, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property. Certainly, we need to minimize any suffering but also consider a sort of limited “personhood” for any animal that exhibits neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. 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.

“We can no longer hide from the evidence,” says Burns. By granting them this personhood status, it would work to prevent puppy mills, laboratory dogs, and dog racing. Perhaps, we might be able to eradicate the misery of chained dogs and dog fighting prevalent in our town.

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