Are dogs really people?

The author (right) with his dog (left) who is probably not a person. Photo credit: Cindy Wolters

A few friends, well aware of how completely obsessed I am with all things dog-related, have been sending me this recent New York Times op-ed about whether or not dogs are people. The answer that Emory neuroeconomist, Gregory Berns, gives is “yes.” At least the kind of limited personhood we might grant to small children. I was hoping to love this piece but instead felt frustrated that the findings seem to rely more on—to borrow a phrase—the seductive appeal of neuroscience, rather than any empirical basis.

Berns begins by noting limitations in understanding animal emotion, disparaging the “behaviorism” in animal research. He tries to get around these restraints by putting dogs in an fMRI machine. After some trial and error (that’s adorable to visualize), Berns explored activation in the caudate nucleus—a brain region associated with reward, memory, and learning—focusing specifically on the caudate’s role in anticipating things that we enjoy, as well as its functional and structural similarity across dogs and humans. He writes in the critical two paragraphs:

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.

First, it seems an empirical and philosophical stretch to consider “experiences positive emotions” as a coherent and plausible criterion for personhood. I’m also unconvinced that caudate activity is solid enough ground to infer sentience, since rats have a functioning caudate that responds to rewards.

Second, it’s not at all clear to me why neuroscience is required to make this conclusion. If we want to give personhood to animals that experience positive emotions, then why go through the trouble and expense of putting dogs in an fMRI machine? It’s pretty obvious to me when my dog is happy. He perks up, he wags his tail, he grins, he looks at me lovingly when I scratch his ears, he sighs contentedly when he chews on bones and other things, and so on. I don’t need to examine activation in his caudate to realize that he’s experiencing positive emotions.

It could be argued that we can’t actually observe the positive experiences in dogs—we can only make inferences from behavioral similarities. And in that case we’d want to look deeper into the subjective experience that dogs might have. Neuroscience is a tempting alternative, but it’s a shallow one—it only feels more scientific without providing much payoff.

What fMRI scans tell us is that certain regions of the brain receive more blood at certain times during a task. So if we see more blood flow to the caudate when dogs look at their owners or see a hand signal associated with food, we infer that the caudate is more active. But how is caudate activation enough to infer something about what dogs experience?

We still haven’t observed any emotion, but rather brain activation. You could appeal to structural or functional homology, as Bern’s does (i.e. “dogs and humans both have caudates that respond to similar things, so they must feel similarly, too”), but notice we’re no better off than where we started. We’ve simply replaced one assumption with another. If the first (“dogs and people both smile, so dogs feel like people do when they smile”) is unjustifiable, so must be the neural one. We’ve learned nothing new about what dogs experience, but rather that dogs show activity in reward regions when they see things they enjoy (which, like, duh?). We’ve only bought the sexy feeling that the science we’ve done is somehow more legitimate.

Which leads me to my last pet peeve (hah) about the OpEd—the constant suggestion that neuroscience has triumphed over the constraints of behaviorism, while ignoring that psychology has been looking beyond behavior just fine for a long time. Animal psychology has been no exception, here. I know of and have been involved in a lot of comparative cognition research with animals (the operative word being “cognition,” not “behavior”). I have good friends who work with Brian Hare at Duke, the co-director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke and author of The Genius of Dogs, and my undergraduate advisor is currently diving into dog cognition, herself. There is a lot of great research that explores how canines think, not just behave. All without the aid of fMRI’s.

fMRI is a great tool, no doubt. But it’s not the only way to learn about the mind, and it certainly has it’s limits. These limits do not go away, however, when looking at other animals. So even though I love my dog (a lot), he’s probably not a person (though I might treat him like one, sometimes). If he is, though, it’s going to take more evidence than this study to convince me.

~Vlad Chituc~

This piece was originally published on the author’s personal blog, which he encourages you to follow.