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How Do Dogs Think?

How New Brain Scan Research Shows Dogs Are People, Too

If you've ever owned a dog you know that dogs can be as emotional and intelligent as people. This is evident from the way your dog's eyes light up when you come home or the sad look he dons when he's in trouble. Now, scientists are confirming for the first time the exact extent to which dogs are able to think and feel compared to humans.

Until recently, researchers have been relying on observation to give us a better idea of what's going on inside a dog's head, limiting them to the field of behavioral science. This type of research is limited to observing a dog's actions; but, as we know, what you do can differ vastly from what you're thinking or feeling. Because of this, behavioral science can be fairly subjective and difficult to quantify, making it subject to suspect in the scientific community.

Using a process that gives researchers a sneak peek into the brain activity of dogs, the experimenting scientists believe that their data shows unarguable evidence that dogs have the same emotional capacity as humans. Though this likely comes as no surprise to anyone that has seen their dog after a long car ride home or a dog grieve at the death of an owner or family member, it does establish something new in the scientific community.

Experiments Use Innovative Techniques to Test Doggie-Consciousness

Researchers have recently performed a unique series of experiments using an fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, machine to scan dogs' brain activity. This process gives them pictures that reflect the brain activity of subjects being scanned. The experimenters can then see how the brain undergoes changes when a dog is exposed to particular stimuli.

The research experiments began by treating the dogs, not as conventional research has, but as children. Many past experiments anesthetized the dogs to prevent them from moving in the machine. This fits simple purposes for understanding brain functions such as how the motor cortex affects breathing; but, for anything dealing with perception or consciousness it makes research nigh impossible. Therefore, the dogs participating were trained to lie perfectly still in the machines and wear headphones to protect them from the noise of the fMRI machine.

The key finding of this research was observing activity in the brain's caudate nucleus, which is consistent in its activation when exposed to enjoyable, preferred stimuli. The nucleus is so complex that it can often indicate our preferences for music, food and art. The activity of the canine caudate nucleus was similar enough to the human caudate nucleus to establish a functional homology or, in other words, enough of a correlation in brain activity to indicate canine emotions.

The research was performed by Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroeconomics professor at Emory University and his colleagues. Berns states that this discovery shows that dogs are at least as sentient as a human child. This research, then, might have large ramifications in the legal field as well. Even since 1966 when congress passed the Animal Welfare Act, Berns states, "though [...] 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 suffering."

What Does this Mean For Dogs?

As neurobiological evidence has been established as valid in particular cases, these cases may serve as precedent in future cases that seek to strengthen animal rights and animal status in the American courtroom. On the other hand, Berns' sample size was not many more than a dozen dogs and it could take further evidence to establish a case in court. Further, as Thomas Nagel might argue, no amount of observational data can confirm anything about the individual conscious experience of another being.

Of course, anyone who has a dog has known that dog's feel as much as any of us; and, some of us even enjoy our "My Dog is Smarter Than Your Honor Student" bumper stickers. So if anything, we can simply hope this new data changes the minds of anyone who thinks otherwise. So the next time your dog looks up with you with his literal puppy-dog eyes, know that he's not just making a face for a treat- he really does love you. We hope that this makes you appreciate your furry friend even more, if that's possible. Other than that, we here at EntirelyPets hope that you and your pet stay healthy and stay happy!

How New Brain Scan Research Shows Dogs Are People, Too