Dogs are People, Too—Except in Court

Posted by Liz Hallinan, ALDF Litigation Fellow on October 8, 2013

This past Sunday and Monday, more people emailed to their friends and loved ones an op-ed titled “Dogs Are People, Too” than they did any other article in the New York Times. In it, Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, offers evidence from brain-imaging studies he conducted with dogs to contemplate limited legal personhood “for animals that show neurobiological evidence of positive emotions.”


Many behavioral scientific findings already support the idea that animals experience emotions and are cognitively advanced. Chimpanzees can use tools and learn language, and exhibit complex social relationships. Dogs use human emotional and social cues to learn about the world. Dolphins remember the friends with whom they were in captivity years after they have been separated. Elephants appear to mourn the deaths of other elephants.

MRI technology allows scientists to see which areas of the brain are active while a test subject is awake and reacting to the world. To scan a human brain, a person lies completely still in a scanner for long periods while they listen to sounds or watch a movie. Scientists then observe which brain areas activate. Some participants find the procedure unpleasant—the scanner is loud, and the space is cramped. Dr. Berns has achieved something rare with animals in neuroscience—he has trained dogs to lie completely still in the scanners, with no sedative or invasive procedure necessary, so he can see inside their brains as they process information while awake.

At least one similarity between human and dog brains stands out: they both process positive emotions in the caudate nucleus. This could mean both dogs and humans experience emotions like love and attachment in the same way. If that is the case, he argues, dogs might be cognitively closer to young children than previously thought. Berns suggests that courts should therefore extend greater protections and perhaps even rights to dogs under the law.

Direct comparison of brain activity between humans and dogs is a fantastic step forward for animal welfare research. However, as Adam Gopnik recently pointed out in the New Yorker, merely pinpointing areas of the brain that activate tells us next to nothing about the actual experiences of any individual. Ultimately, it is not surprising that related mammals such as dogs and humans share similar brain structures, used for the same cognitive abilities.

Dr. Berns should be applauded for pioneering new, painless techniques for studying animal neuroscience. However, you don’t need to compare brain parts to discover the complexity of animal emotions or to know that they suffer. Observing the natural behaviors of animals alone should be sufficient to grant animals protection under the law.

6 thoughts on “Dogs are People, Too—Except in Court

  1. Becky McGee says:

    Well, even though I didn’t need a neuroscientist to tell me that, I’m glad he did. Thank you Dr. Berns.

  2. Wendy says:

    I suspect that it is only a matter of time until they find the same thing true for all animals…some of us instinctively already know that.

  3. Jacqueline Daly says:

    Yay! I’m thrilled to see there’s an action for this issue. I have posted a request for someone with lots of friends to do something to change the status of domesticated animals from property to sentient beings on every animals abuse posting I see.

  4. Rob Smith says:

    “However, as Adam Gopnik recently pointed out in the New Yorker, merely pinpointing areas of the brain that activate tells us next to nothing about the actual experiences of any individual.”

    This is the kind of extreme skepticism that I expected to see. For many people, the argument for animal emotions are simply unfalsifiable. There’s no conceivable evidence for these people because we can’t “read minds’. This is a cop-out as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Rana says:

    Really, Rob? Then tell me why a dog cries when their mate dies? Tell me why a dog will stop eating if they’re owners go away? Tell me why a dog will cry or continue to look around, when they lose a puppy to death, or one is given away? I’ll tell you why, because they feel the same as we do! There are no explanations that answer those questions.

  6. Many blessings to all who work to make animals’ lives better. We are their only voice. ♥ So I am using my voice to post this repeatedly, until it somehow falls into the hands of someone who has the authority and the courage to help us put an end to puppy and kittens mills. PUPPY MILLS ARE GLUTTING THE SYSTEM
    We will euthanize 10,000 pets today at our animal shelters and city Animal Care & Control facilities. We will euthanize 10,000 pets tomorrow too, and most every day. Unless our lawmakers enact regulations on the production of puppy and kitten mills, this pet overpopulation crisis is doomed to increase. This is costing our government millions of dollars, which are OUR TAX DOLLARS! And they are being spent to KILL PETS that the PUPPY MILLS ARE PRODUCING. What is wrong with this picture? The USDA has NEGLECTED to regulate this mill production, to the point that our country is about to explode with dead and suffering animals. Surely, our government must know that this has to stop! I will never understand how the USDA has any business having pets under the same regulations, (or the lack thereof), as poultry, slaughter hogs and beef cattle producers…WE DO NOT EAT DOGS AND CATS IN THIS COUNTRY, they are pets! Our government must stop allowing them to be mass produced like they were food animals! And the conditions that we accept as “USDA approved” for these animals to live in, consist of a lifetime of horrific neglect and deprivation! These pets don’t even go to slaughter when they are old enough and fattened up. They live their entire lives in a cage, often left out in all kinds of weather, with little or no veterinary care. The female’s’ life is spent carrying, nursing, or grieving her lost babies, until she is bred yet again. Then about twice a year, the male shares her cage until mating is complete. Then he is returned to languish in his own flthy cage until it is time to breed again. This only ends for them when they die, or become “no longer good for breeding” I don’t know what, if any regulation exists for their “disposal”. But the numbers of dead and decaying animal carcasses that are strewn throughout the property of far too many of these mills, speak volumes. Unfortunately, the financial influence of the Agriculture business has managed to supercede the horrific conditions of the animals, the pet overpopulation crisis, even the glutting of our own systems!
    WE THE PEOPLE, MUST RISE UP AND DEMAND THAT OUR GOVERNMENT ENACT LAWS TO END THIS INSANITY! I guarantee you, if the beef producers were churning out millions of pounds of beef in a year, and we only ate half of it, and the other half had to be “disposed of” at great expense to the government, you can bet the USDA would be slapping some major restrictions on beef production. So why don’t they see that we are euthanizing over four million pets a year, and the puppy and kitten mills are “producing” a majority of them? IS OUR GOVERNMENT REALLY SO “OWNED” BY THE PUPPY MILL/AG INDUSTRY, THAT THEY BETRAY THEIR CONSTITUENTS, WASTE OUR TAX DOLLARS AND GLUT THEIR OWN SYSTEM? We must find a way to rid our world of this horrific business of abuse and neglect! OUR GOVERNMENT MUST TAKE ACTION TODAY!

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