Do Dogs Have Human Emotions?

Are Dogs Like People?

 As golden retriever lovers, we instinctively know our dogs are actually furry people.   However, recent studies finally back up our theory.

In the past, researchers relied on observation to give us an idea what is inside a dog’s head.  Unfortunately because dog’s can’t speak (at least in our language), some in the scientific community have not totally accepted behavioral science.  Many feel it can be subjective and difficult to quantify, making it questionable without actual physical evidence.   However, now that has changed. 

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.”  Dr. Berns and his colleagues have trained dogs to go in an MRI scanner — completely awake and unrestrained.  The goal was to determine how dogs’ brains work and what they think of us.  Their conclusion:  dogs are people too.  (Hey, we knew that!)

 By looking directly at their brains, MRIs can tell us about dogs’ internal states.  The problem is, if you have ever had an MRI, you know how noisy, confining and absolutely still you must stay during the procedure.  Conventional veterinary practice is to anesthetize animals so they don’t move during a scan.  But brain function such as perception or emotion cannot be studied in an anesthetized animal.   

 Dr. Berns’ rescue dog Callie was the first subject.  With the help of a trainer, Callie was taught to go into an MRI simulator.  She learned to walk up steps into a tube, place her head in a custom-fitted chin rest, and hold still for periods up to 30 seconds.  On top of that, Callie had to learn to wear earmuffs to protect her sensitive hearing.  After months of training in a real MRI scanner, they had the first maps of brain activity.  At the start of the tests researchers measured Callie’s brain response to two hand signals in the scanner.  In later experiments they determined which parts of her brain distinguished the scents of familiar and unfamiliar humans and dogs.  Within a year the researchers assembled a team of twelve dogs who were all “MRI certified”. 

 Although this is just the beginning toward answering basic questions about the canine brain, there is striking similarity between dogs and humans in the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.  The caudate has dopamine receptors which play a key role in things humans enjoy like food, music, love and money.  But can this association infer what a person is thinking just by measuring caudate activity? 

 In dogs the researchers found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals for food, smells of familiar humans, and even the return of an owner who stepped out of view.  Do these findings prove that dogs love us?  Not quite, but the caudate activates positive emotions of humans and it seems there is now evidence that our pups seem to have emotions like us.  Dr. Berns feels this ability suggests we rethink how we treat dogs. 

 Currently the law considers animals as property.  If we were to grant canines the rights of a person, they would be afforded protection again exploitation like puppy mills and dog racing, in addition to current laws regarding inhumane treatment.  Someday maybe a case can be heard arguing for a dog’s rights based on the brain-imaging findings of this study. 


 Berns, Gregory, Professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain” and the New York Times October 6, 2013 op-ed “ Dogs are People Too”.

 Psychology Today, “Animal Emotions: Do Animals Think and Feel”, Mark Bekoff


 ABA Journal, “What are the Legal Implications of Animal Emotions?“, Debra Cassens Weiss,

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