The Answers We Find By Understanding the Emotional Lives of Dogs

The Physicians Committee

Good Science

The Answers We Find By Understanding the Emotional Lives of Dogs

  September 21, 2017  


dog emotion studies

When Dr. Gregory Berns' favorite dog Newton, a 14-year-old pug, died, Berns found himself asking whether Newton had loved him the same way he loved Newton. That was the beginning of a unique research endeavor for the Emory University Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics, one in which Callie, another of his rescued dogs, has played a trailblazing role. A recent interview psychologist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., conducted with Dr. Berns reveals the potentially game-changing results.

What Dr. Berns' research shows is that noninvasive, nonradioactive, and (importantly) noncoercive MRI brain scans can teach us much about how dogs or other nonhumans receive and process information and experiences. In many instances, canine responses involve the same brain regions that are activated by similar human experiences, such as pleasure from a familiar object, sound, or smell. But these responses and brain activation patterns differ among dogs, just as they differ among humans.

By performing functional MRI scans on community-living dogs who willingly participate, Dr. Berns has begun to localize brain responses to hand signals, smells, and other exposures. For example, the caudate nucleus in dogs and humans is activated by the anticipation and perception of pleasure, whether a favorite dog toy or a photo of a beloved family member. Dr. Berns has provided further confirmation that the emotional lives of dogs are rich in much the same ways that human lives are rich. Our canine friends and their nonhuman brethren are not senseless beasts, no matter what Claude Bernard and René Descartes believed in less enlightened eras.

One of Dr. Berns' preliminary findings is that the canine caudate nucleus—the pleasure center—is activated by the return of the dog's guardian from a brief absence. So do dogs love us, miss us when we are gone, and anticipate our return? Animal lovers know the answers intuitively, but science has not made all the connections. Dr. Berns' research is a step in that direction.

What is clear are the bonds and shared emotions that have made Sparky man's longest-tenured companion. The studies conducted by Gregory Berns are confirming what may seem obvious to people who share their lives with dogs, cats, and other companions, and it deconstructs the claim of animal researchers that it is ethical and moral to experiment on nonhumans because they don't experience life as we do. Dr. Berns' research and decades of unproductive animal research to study human diseases or develop drugs tell us just the opposite: Our nonhuman cohabitants of Earth differ from us in ways that invalidate translation of animal research to humans, but they share with us the characteristics of fear, pain, suffering, (and yes, love) and other emotional and physical attributes that make experimenting on them immensely cruel.