Gregory Berns, a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, trained dogs to voluntarily walk into fMRi scanners to observe their brain function in hopes of learning about their inner selves.

Berns acknowledges, “Animal research is big business. It has been easy to sidestep the difficult questions about animal sentience and emotions because they have been unanswerable.”

What makes this study so strikingly different from other animal research studies is the way in which the research team treated the dogs. The study used a consent form, signed by the dogs owner; only positive training methods; and the dogs had the option to walk away from the scanner at any time. You can even watch how they trained the dogs on Berns’ YouTube page.

Berns studied his own companion, Callie, a black terrier mix he had rescued.

“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,” Berns said.

The findings of 12 dogs over the span of a year showed that activity in the caudate (a brain region that plays a role in the anticipation of things we enjoy) increased in response to hand signals indicating food. It also increased in response to the smell of familiar humans and of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. These findings may be an indication of the proof of canine emotion.

In response to these findings, Berns suggests we need to reconsider how we regard our canine companions. Currently, dogs are designated as property rather than companions or sentient beings. Berns’ tests are beginning to provide hard evidence that could improve protection for dogs and he recommends “a sort of limited personhood for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions.”

If this sort of brain imaging will prove as fruitful for other animals as it has for dogs, it may be another step forward toward a more humane world for animals.

Mark Bekoff, Ph.D. in animal emotions sums it up best: “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.”

Image Source: Cheng Shiang Khoo/Flickr