New Study Proves Emotional Intelligence of Dogs, Makes Case for Rights

A beautiful old Dog. (New York Times)

A beautiful old Dog. (New York Times)

In nearly three years of publishing this website, this is the first article I believe to be of such importance and with so compelling a message, that I am reproducing it here in full. It appeared in the New York Times five days ago. It is written by Gregory Berns. It is, perhaps predictably for those who regularly follow this website, about the reverence which is long overdue to Dogs and, in fact, all animals.


October 5, 2013

Evalyn Walsh McLean with her dog and Hope Diamond.

Evalyn Walsh McLean with her dog and Hope Diamond.

FOR the past two years, my colleagues and I have been training dogs to go in an M.R.I. scanner — completely awake and unrestrained. Our goal has been to determine how dogs’ brains work and, even more important, what they think of us humans.

Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too.

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. The prospect of ferreting out animal emotions scares many scientists. After all, animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.

Until now.

Happy bulldog.

Happy bulldog, a friend I made in San Francisco.

By looking directly at their brains and bypassing the constraints of behaviorism, M.R.I.’s can tell us about dogs’ internal states. M.R.I.’s are conducted in loud, confined spaces. People don’t like them, and you have to hold absolutely still during the procedure. Conventional veterinary practice says you have to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan. But you can’t study brain function in an anesthetized animal. At least not anything interesting like perception or emotion.

Tiger Woods meets a friend.

Tiger Woods meets a friend.

From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons. We had a consent form, which was modeled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasized that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study. We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.

Laddie Boy, the Airedale companion of President and Mrs. Harding.

Laddie Boy, the Airedale companion of President and Mrs. Harding.

My dog Callie was the first. Rescued from a shelter, Callie was a skinny black terrier mix, what is called a feist in the southern Appalachians, from where she came. True to her roots, she preferred hunting squirrels and rabbits in the backyard to curling up in my lap. She had a natural inquisitiveness, which probably landed her in the shelter in the first place, but also made training a breeze.

Mae West and Afghans, 1935.

Mae West and Borzois, 1935.

With the help of my friend Mark Spivak, a dog trainer, 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.

After months of training and some trial-and-error at the real M.R.I. scanner, we were rewarded with the first maps of brain activity. For our first tests, we measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner. In later experiments, not yet published, we determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

Soon, the local dog community learned of our quest to determine what dogs are thinking. Within a year, we had assembled a team of a dozen dogs who were all “M.R.I.-certified.”

President Nixon with his terrier dog Pascha, San Clemente 1971.

President Nixon with his terrier dog Pascha, San Clemente 1971.

Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.

Doris Day, animal protection activist and former actress with Duffy the Dog, 2011. (Doris Day Foundation)

Doris Day, animal protection activist and former actress with Duffy the Dog, 2011. (Doris Day Foundation)

Rich in dopamine receptors, the caudate sits between the brainstem and the cortex. In humans, the caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love and money. But can we flip this association around and infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? Because of the overwhelming complexity of how different parts of the brain are connected to one another, it is not usually possible to pin a single cognitive function or emotion to a single brain region.

Belka and Strelka, two Dogs sent by Soviets on a rocket into orbit.

Belka and Strelka, two Dogs sent by Soviets on a rocket into orbit.

But the caudate may be an exception. 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.

Wine Country Whitmore the Whippet.

Wine Country Whitmore the Whippet.

DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and 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 their suffering.

But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.

One alternative is a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions. Many rescue groups already use the label of “guardian” to describe human caregivers, binding the human to his ward with an implicit responsibility to care for her. Failure to act as a good guardian runs the risk of having the dog placed elsewhere. But there are no laws that cover animals as wards, so the patchwork of rescue groups that operate under a guardianship model have little legal foundation to protect the animals’ interest.

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.

Buck, the Shephard of Stark County.

Buck, the Shephard of Stark County.

I suspect that 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. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom.

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

Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

My very own pal Yeager, in 2006, now gone.

My very own pal Yeager, in 2006, now gone. (Yes, his nails had a naturally long “quick,” no I didn’t fail to trim them. Just saying)

Categories: Dogs

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24 replies »

  1. Carl, I could have told you that animals have emotions and love us without a MRI. I know you could have done the same. 🙂 It is only those people who have never had a relationship with an animal that will need this scientific “proof.” What does concern me about these studies, however, is how many MRIs the same dog will receive. From my understanding, each MRI has a degree of radiation, like that of any X-ray. While a limited amount will not harm the person or animal, continued exposure may elevate the risk of cancer. So while I like the results that are coming out of this study, I hope proper precautions are being taken to protect the health of these animal volunteers.

    • The writer and scientist here is clearly very protective of his Dog Companion so I don’t think that should necessarily be a concern – at least not for his particular companion. Also I’ve been MRIed a hell of a lot recently and had a talk with a radiologist about this – there is a far, far greater exposure to radiation levels in an x-ray. And Humans and Dogs have been x-rayed a lot more than MRIed.

      • I hope you are right. Like you, I’ve been in that MRI tube a lot as of late. In fact, I have another one coming up soon. That was what triggered my concern, because a friend, who is a radiology tech, brought this up with me.

        • We’re probably going to be more exposed to the MRI than the Dogs will! It does raise an interesting ethical question which is tied up within this very article and that is: Humans choosing to relieve or detect a physical problem make the choice to seek an MRI or X-Ray with its potential risks as being part of that freedom of choice. Dogs didn’t ask for the MRI.

          • I agree with you. And I don’t think an MRI or two will hurt the dogs. I just hope it isn’t ongoing and continuous because they have been trained for it. I can’t help it, I really am an animal lover. My cats are like my children. I am not for a moment even suggesting that you don’t feel likewise. I KNOW you do. We understand the bond between animals and ourselves.

          • And BTW Carl, just so you know, your genuine compassion and love for Yager touched me more than you know. As far as I’m concerned, you rock!

          • Dear Carl,

            Mae West is pictured above in this article with dogs. I think they’re not Afghans but Borzois.

            I do enjoy all all of your articles, and sometimes read them several times.

          • I greatly appreciate that correction and your taking time to write it – it’s one thing to know, it’s another thing to tap it out and submit, so I thank you and will make the correction.

          • That is what we own now, a borzoi/lab mix. One heck of a mix … the bulk and goofiness of a lab, but the speed of a borzoi! Getting him to ‘obey’ the electric fence was a challenge and after a year and a half of chasing him around the neighborhood, we’re finally able to trust him to stay in the yard without a leash or lead … to a point! A good thing he’s micro-chipped. BTW, his name is Harley D. (Davidson). LOL!

          • I have no doubt whatsoever that dogs not only THINK but also reason logically and react appropriately. Our shepherd mix, Choco, knew the meanings of several word-spellings, what it meant to count to 3, and on one Thanksgiving, when given a biscuit from my husband, brought it to MY end of the table to be buttered. They are very intelligent and know what they like and what they don’t. They also feel emotions, which have been proven in the past by the number of dogs who refuse to leave their masters burial sites. I’m glad someone has finally found a way to ‘gauge’ their intelligence, because most people don’t believe me when I tell them of our Choco, who we lost about 10 years ago.

          • Haha….I love that story about bringing it to you to be buttered. I can’t visualize it. I so agree with you on this and have the knowledge of it from my own observations and living very closely with Yeager. I’m struck too by how crisply you recall Choco after a decade. I like that. Thank you for writing Vicki.

          • Thank you for responding! Choco would be very hard to forget! I used to babysit until Choco was a couple years old and we got him a female shepherd for a companion when I started working outside the home. But before this, I was speaking to one of the babysitting parents in my kitchen. There were kids running everywhere (I had 4, babysat about 6, not counting infants and toddlers) and Choco was lying in the middle of the kitchen floor. I very loudly announced, “If everyone doesn’t leave this kitchen and go play by the time I count to three, they’re standing in corners! As soon as I reached two, CHOCO got up and left the room! No kids tho! The babysitting mother looked at me in amazement. I simply looked at her and said, “Oh, yeah. He can count.” I also would ask him if he wanted to g-o, and his ears would perk up. Then I’d ask if he wanted to g-o in the c-a-r and he would get up and start dancing. When I asked where my car keys were, he would go right to the kitchen counter. He also knew to put his milk bowl (a special treat0 in the sink by himself by standing on his hind legs. My husband and I were going to try him on Search and Rescue, because he loved children and knew the word kid-kids. He would have been great at finding them! Like I said, much like your Yeager, he would be very hard to forget. There’s so many other stories I could tell! Vicki

          • Thanks Vicki, Your story reminds me of one particularly bizarre incident with Yeager when I got my keys, which were on a large ring, ready to leave but without him. The phone rang. I put my keys, wallet and cell on a coffee table and answered the home phone. After about ten minutes I went to leave and there were no keys. I flipped out at myself – I knew I had put the keys with the wallet and cell. Looked everywhere. Missed my appointment. I went outside twice and Yeager was lying in the sun. Went back again and tore the rooms apart looking for the keys. I thought I was nuts. I went in the kitchen where eventually Yeager came in for water and to poke around. Later that day I went to move the back lawn – and there were my keys. Yeager had taken the ring in his teeth and put the keys outside and laid on them. Weims are bizarrely adept at some of these things. One with separation anxiety I was foster-caring escaped from a room – as I recorded on my camera – by jumping up and swiping his paws alongside the doorknob – and turned it and got out.

          • I’m sorry I haven’t replied until now. I have been working nights this week. But yes, dogs can figure things our for themselves. My cat used to do the same with the door knob. She had a litter of kittens in our hall closet and the kids kept unintentionally closing the door. She would stand on the towel shelf and use both paws to turn the knob!

          • No worries – I’m behind in responding as well. Yes, each being – Cat, Dog, Human, Horse, etc. should perhaps never be underestimated in terms of what that individual may prove capable of doing or learning. I think that’s the most important single fact that might best guide every turn of our interactions, really. It’s the very idea of equality – not that all beings possess the same level and degree of capability but rather the potential for it and the right to learn and express it.

  2. I saw this article too Carl. I’ve felt for a long time that there was a lot more about the animals that we didn’t know or realize, e.g., emotions, intelligence, their ability to communicate. I also think that humans tended to be a little arrogant in dismissing it and them. I think this type of research will uncover more, and that’s a good thing.

  3. I love it when science proves what we already *know* in our hearts. Thanks for sharing this article Carl.

  4. All one has to do is look into a dog’s eyes to know they have emotional intelligence.. No MRI needed

  5. I love dogs. But they’re not people. But then is the real “next” SCOPUS battle over…sentience? Are we going to decide whether scentient beings have rights? Really? What kind of sentient being? Who decides? What criteria defines sentience? Sanity requires certain legal tests that are based in science but the legal definition causes scientists to get nauseous. The reason is because sanity is something that changes. What about sentience? Jainists believe everything has a soul. No jainist would eat a living thing – not animals – any living thing. So does that mean all sentient beings are equal?

    • I don’t disagree with what you say, but I also think these issues need to have the respect of a dialogue. The great almighty Human Beings do not, in fact, understand and recognize every aspect of the lives and cognitive processes of all other living entities. And it may be quite literally centuries before a greater sense of justice is determined by Human Beings in the Human-dominated world. That is, if the great almighty Human Beings don’t first destroy the common soil, water and air and all other living beings, including many of their own. Just because an idea seems stupid or laughable by some wiseass Leaders does not mean it is not an ideal which society as a whole might strive towards. I eat meat. I like it. I also have a deeper sense it may not be “fair” or “right” by some standards. I was also raised, as we all were, to think nothing of it. But if society slowly progresses over the ensuing centuries perhaps there will be a day when new Humans are born into a world where it is not thought necessary to kill other beings for sustenance. I also think of the grat Scientists who told us in the last century about the finite number of planets. Until they learned a little bit more about some other “new” ones. They were only “new” when the Humans realized they were there – but they were always there. In that way, Dogs and other animals may not have the same need to ensure that respect for their right to living – until we recognize it.

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