Animal Rights Science

Yes, Of Course Dogs are Sentient. But Now There’s Science to Prove It.

Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, writing for The New York Times:

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.

If it’s proven that dogs are sentient (and we all know they are, really) there needs to be new laws and rights established to protect them. So many dogs are subjected to torturous lives, and new laws need to be established to better protect them from harm.

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.

  • Badgerite

    Seriously? They need a ‘study’ to figure our that animals feel and have emotion?

  • D_C_Wilson

    I don’t need any studies to know that dogs have some form of self-awareness.

    Dogs are amazing. They are the only domesticated animal that we have successfully bred to love us and actively seek out our company. Cats tolerate use and if they could operate a can operator, they’d ignore us completely. It’s a pretty impressive feat of genetic engineering considering we took an animal, the wolf, the normally shuns humans, and, without any knowledge of DNA, managed to selectively breed them into such loyal companions.

  • muselet
  • Jeremy Grunloh

    Since Americans don’t eat dogs, and they’re fluffy and cute and most people grew up with at least one, nobody’s going to have a problem with some form of personhood-like classification for them (same for cats, though perhaps less so). Seriously, those are the only reasons most people give a shit what happens to them. Morality has zero to do with it. However, don’t *EVER* expect a similar study for animals codified in people’s brains as food (such as cows, chickens and pigs) or any animal that hunters like to shoot at. If there were such an endeavor, and the same results were found, “animal sentience denialism” would become a thing as quickly as “climate denialsim” did.

  • mrbrink

    So cool.

  • feloniousgrammar

    That mammals are primarily social animals has been established at least since the seventies. Bear in mind that many studies to determine how the human brain/mind works and how drugs affect the human brain have been done on rats. Below is a comic book presentation challenging the rat studies that concluded that an animal would do a drug until died instead of eating. a recent study has been done on crack addiction that also concluded that given a healthy environment and choices, addicts can make rational choices about using addictive drugs. For anyone not heavily invested in the hypothesis that all behavior is biological and brain based that is good news.

    Here is a video of a sentient rat, playing with a human scientist.

  • I’m sitting on my hands to resist posting pics of my sentient being! (SuzieQ and the pumpkin are too darn cute!) Two of my favorite sayings:

    — The more I get to know people, the more I love my dog

    — If cats could blog, they wouldn’t

    It’s always hard to resist “oppression olympics” (e.g.; how can you talk about animals when millions of people are dying?…”) but I think that stronger laws to protect animals, especially those that humans have domesticated, are needed. Cruelty to animals is abusing helpless beings who can’t fight back. Dis. gus. ting.

  • zirgar

    That emotions evolved in hominids is a good indicator that they could arise, and probably have arisen, not just in other genus and species but in whole other orders and families. As far as granting animals rights, we should. I mean, we only have rights at all because we gave them to ourselves and cloaked it all in some piety and religiosity and philosophical underpinnings; but seriously, we invented them, so why not give some form of rights to other living beings? There is no good reason not to. Now, as far as puppy mills go, if you want to do something about getting rid of them, someone needs to do something about that rotten piece of shit named Steve King (R-IA) who apparently thinks humanity should be allowed to do whatever it likes to animals, no matter how gruesome or despicable (which also pretty much describes Steve King), and votes accordingly. Supposedly he has emotions, but I have yet to see proof. Same with intelligence.

  • feloniousgrammar

    What a silly and redundant experiment. We don’t need evidence that dogs are sentient, because if they aren’t, then the word has no meaning. Rescue teams who use dogs to find people buried in rubble, have a person pretend to be a victim when a dog hasn’t found anyone so that the dog doesn’t get depressed. Anyone who has ever known a dog, knows that they are sentient. Rats are sentient.

    I’m curious how reliable the conclusion is that sentience can be determined by looking at the caudate. Generally speaking there have been a lot of lame MRI studies operating on the bad assumption that complex emotions and other processes are located in isolated centers of the brain, when that isn’t how the brain really works. Images that make it appear that a certain part of the brain is “lit up” in a sea of darkness are not the whole picture of brain activity at the time of the scan. There is also a lot of math to be done to accurately assess those scans,and when done wrong, a dead salmon can appear to have significant brain activity.

  • We can’t even get people to accept other people as fellow sentients, so good luck granting other animals that same accolade.

  • formerlywhatithink

    Dogs vs cats

  • Churchlady320

    Dogs not only do not require limited personhood, it is a violation of our regard for them AND other animals. Simple respect for all living creatures is both necessary and sufficient. To give them personhood ahead of apes with even greater mental capacities or amphibians that are not warm and fuzzy is to ignore the specific qualities they have. I agree in principle about protecting them. But respect them AS DOGS not as little people. That’s not helpful.

  • Robert Scalzi


  • mshenry70

    What about cats? I know my cat love me!

  • I agree that we need better laws to protect sentient animals such as dogs. However………….personhood? Um, no. Come up with something more appropriate.

    • Yeah, this movement needs a new word to focus on. Calling for personhood for animals is a guaranteed way to make sure nobody will pay attention.

    • Robert Scalzi

      Caninehood !!

    • Draxiar

      “Come up with something more appropriate.”
      I would never want to insult dogs by labeling them with “personhood”. They deserve a more noble stature.

  • Most of us who have contact with animals, especially dogs, already knew this, but it’s nice to have the modern scientific backup.

    However, with that said, cue the right-wing outrage on the limited personhood issue with ‘now people will be wanting to legally marry dogs!!!1!!!’, in 3… 2…. 1…