Are Dogs Only Human, After All?

Dogs Are People TooThe New York Times a few days ago published an opinion piece (“Dogs Are People, Too”) by Gregory Berns, a professor at Emory University and author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. Berns and fellow researchers have been using an M.R.I. scanner to look at the brain activity of conscious dogs, in an effort to better understand the canine brain and how dogs might think and feel.

There was some publicity about these studies more than a year ago, and in fact it was also covered in this space back then. At the time, I felt that the most amazing thing about the whole story was the fact that dogs had been successfully trained to stay absolutely stock still in an M.R.I. machine while it was noisily operating (and indeed while they were reacting to signals from the researchers for one thing or another in order to view their corresponding brain activity). Anyone who has had to bring a pet to get an x-ray or any other kind of scan would know that they are always anesthetized for such examinations in order to ensure that they will not move and so ruin the pictures. This makes the whole thing a much bigger deal for the animal, not to mention significantly more expensive for the paying human. Perhaps all dogs should be trained while they’re young to stay still for scans. And cats too. And turtles!

As far as the actual results of the research go, Professor Berns believe he has demonstrated based on their brain activity that dogs experience pleasurable anticipation when they are offered an edible treat, and also when they are given evidence (olfactory or otherwise) that their owner is nearby. This is based on activity in the area of the caudate nucleus.

Well, one finds it impossible to suppress the observation that coming to these kinds of conclusions after all of that effort evokes a hypothetical astronomer who builds a gigantic telescope only to announce with great fanfare that the the color of the sky is blue. However, the method that has been developed may well lead to more interesting things down the road.

Professor Berns, however, is not waiting for all of those potentially more interesting things to emerge before expressing a fairly provocative opinion. He notes: “Dogs have long been considered property.” He posits that the evidence of the M.R.I. scanner is that dogs (and likely other animals) “seem to have emotions just like us.” And then the real opinion part comes in: “And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.” He suggests a “limited personhood” status, that could be used to protect dogs against “exploitation,” and ban such things as dog racing and the use of dogs in laboratory studies, as these would violate the dog’s (or the person’s) right of “self-determination.”

Personally I give Professor Berns kudos for laying his cards on the table. However, I have some reservations about his prescription for the future.

Dogs M.R.I.I love my dog. She is a small terrier, not dissimilar to Berns’ own dog. There is probably little or nothing that I wouldn’t do to protect her well-being. But there are some very specific reasons for that. I have a personal relationship with her, one that now dates back years. When I took ownership of her (and I do tend to think that owner is the right word, not “pet parent” or “guardian”) I knew I was assuming responsibility for her care for the length of her life, fifteen years or (hopefully) more, and I thought twice about it, but finally committed to it. I take that seriously and would not for a moment consider returning her to the pound or abandoning her. She is far more than a thing to me (and to her other owner).

Yet, the idea of elevating dogs and/or other animals to a legal status similar to human beings seems to me to be a mistaken idea. They ought to be valued for what they are, and in every case an animal is an amazing creature, incomprehensible in its beauty and complexity. They all ought to be held in regard for that reason, and treated with kindness. It is right that we outlaw cruelty towards and abuse of animals. Most people do, of-course, eat the flesh of animals, as many animals also eat each other, and this is an aspect of this world that one might wish to change, but it seems that it will remain so pending the decision of a much higher authority. Meanwhile, animals reared for slaughter should also be held in regard and treated with kindness until their allotted time runs out.

There are two basic questions that occur to me regarding this idea of raising dogs and other animals to the status of personhood. The first: Is being a person defined by the presence of such emotions as gladness, sadness, and fear? If so, then certainly all animals are persons (I don’t require studies utilizing M.R.I. machines to tell me that all mammals feel such things — and fish and lizards too!). However, I think that while humans share these feelings with animals—another good reason to respect them and hold them in regard—we also possess gifts beyond that which animals have, central among which is the ability to question everything that we perceive, and to decide independently whether we ought to value it or despise it. Animals have a simpler relationship with that which benefits them and that which harms them. In a nutshell, we as humans possess a truly free (and at times frightening) will. Our presumed right of self-determination flows from this. We cannot impart this status to an animal merely by passing a law, can we?

Second is the question of how we order things. I am very far from opposed to treating dogs and other animals with greater kindness as our civilization matures, but I think that there is some doubt as to when our civilization might mature. When, specifically, will we endow all human beings with the status of personhood, affording them protection and the right of self-determination? Surely it is true, as wiser folks have observed in the past, that a society ought best to be judged by how it treats its most helpless members. On that score (limiting our commentary to American society) we are not doing so well. Our most helpless are discarded and sent down the drain, quite literally. This being the case, it seems that we should first focus on coming to a better mutual understanding of what personhood means and how to protect that status for human beings before attempting to elevate the legal status of animals.

We will all be much better positioned to love and value animals when we understand our own value as human beings, and the value of creation generally. So, to the extent that studies involving M.R.I. scanners and amazingly compliant dogs help us towards that goal, they are a good thing, but far from the final word.

Addendum: Also see Wesley J. Smith’s take on this: “Dogs Are Great–But Not Persons.”