Dogs Are People, Too: They Love Us and Miss Us fMRI's Say

Noninvasive neuroimaging of our best friend's brains shows similarities to ours

Posted Oct 06, 2013

A recent essay in the New York Times by Psychology Today contributor and Emory University Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics and Director of the Center for Neuropolicy Gregory Berns called "Dogs Are People, Too", and his new book titled How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain based on research in what is called the Dog Project in which dogs are treated as persons and partook only if they wanted to, are must reads for everyone interested in nonhuman animal (animal) emotions. (For a brief discussion of personhood and dogs please click here.)

Do dogs love us and miss us when we're gone?

Do dogs love us and miss us when we're gone? It's easy to answer these questions with a resounding and unquestionable "Yes!" But, what do the data say?

The answers Professor Berns gives to a variety of questions posted here tell us much about what he and his colleagues study (see also) and what they have discovered.

Why did you start the Dog Project?

Two years ago, my favorite dog—a 14 year-old pug named Newton—died. After he was gone, I wondered if he had loved me the same way I had loved him. It seemed impossible to know. I had spent the last 20 years using brain imaging to study how the human brain works, and after Newton died, I realized that we could use the same tools to understand how the canine brain works. Dogs are very special animals. They have been with humans far longer than any other creature, and yet we really don't know what they are thinking.

Where do the dogs come from?

All of the dogs are owned and trained by people in the Atlanta community. They volunteer their time to participate mostly out of a love for their dogs and a curiosity to figure out what dogs are thinking. Many of our team members have experience raising service dogs for local and national service-dog groups. Others enjoy agility competition. Several of the dogs were adopted from shelters or rescue groups. We do not use, nor do we support the use of dogs (usually beagles) that have been purposely bred for research.

How does an MRI tell you what a dog is thinking?

We use a technique called functional MRI (fMRI). When neurons are active, they require more blood and oxygen, which is picked up with fMRI. The technique has been used in humans for 20 years.

Is MRI dangerous to the dog?

MRI uses a strong magnetic field (60,000 times Earth's magnetic field). By itself, the magnetic field poses no danger to the dogs. However, the field is strong enough to pull metallic objects into the magnet, making them projectiles. Just like human patients, we take extra care to make sure there is no metal on the dog or the humans in the room. We use only nylon collars. Microchips are MR-safe. As part of the MRI process, the scanner emits radio waves to excite protons in the body (this is the 'R' in 'MRI', standing for 'resonance'). Because some dogs do not weigh very much, we take care to limit the amount of radio waves emitted. The FDA sets limits on the radio power for humans by weight, which we follow for dogs. Finally, MRIs are loud. To protect the dogs' hearing, we train them to wear ear muffs.

What have you discovered?

Dogs' brains, in many ways, look and function just like human brains. We share many of the same basic structures (called a 'homology'), including a brain region that is associated with positive emotions. We are also beginning to understand how the dog's powerful sense of smell works to identify the members of his household.

We can no longer hide from the scientific evidence: A paradigm shift is in the works

All in all, dogs and humans show striking similarities in the activity of an important brain region called the caudate nucleus. So, do dogs love us and miss us when we're gone? The data strongly suggest they do. And, these data can be further used to move us away from simplistic reductionist behaviorist explanations of animal behavior and animal emotions and also be used to protect dogs and other animals from being abused. Right now animals are legally considered to be property, just like a backpack or bicycle.

To quote Professor Berns: "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." Furthermore, "Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings." Move over B F. Skinner and those who defy and deny what we know by continuing to claim that people who say that other animals have rich and deep emotional lives are being overly sentimental and "soft", anthropomorphic, and non-scientific. They're wrong. 

The work of Professor Berns and his colleagues is a true paradigm shift in how we study the brains of nonhuman animals and learn about what they feel—their rich and deep emotional lives— that are very much like our own. Let's hope it is widely adopted. 

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