For a very long time, mankind has tried to understand the mental capabilities of the animals around us. Perhaps more than any other, we’ve sought to understand the dog. Dogs have been with us for at least 10,000 years (possibly as long as 30,000). That remarkable length of time has made dogs a part of the very meaning of what it is to be human. Owners will tell you that dogs communicate with humans, that they understand humans, that they think and feel as well as humans do.
Data has been lacking to support what pet owners intuitively seem to understand. Studies have shown that dogs can understand 100-200 words. We understand a lot about their behavior, too, including their body language. What we haven’t been able to grasp so well is whether they feel emotions that would be recognizable to us.
A lot of the behaviors that owners would say are dogs thinking and feeling are more likely to be a pet reacting to conditioning or our body language or tone of voice. We aren’t sure if there’s any human-level thinking and feeling going on there. It’s tempting to anthropomorphize: assigning human attributes to a non-human thing. Please don’t misunderstand. I, too, would love to say that there’s obvious proof of dogs thinking. I certainly see enough different dogs and hear the owner’s anecdotes to make a believer out of me. However, it’s important for us to be strict about gaining scientific proof.
Enter this article: What fMRI Can Tell Us About the Thoughts and Minds of Dogs.
A scientist is using an fMRI to examine the active parts of a dog’s brain under certain stimuli and situations. His preliminary results indicate that there are some striking similarities between human and dog brains. Areas that in humans are related to the sensation of pleasure in response to getting a favorite/good food also activated when dogs anticipated a food reward.
The researcher has proposed that these preliminary results will be the beginning of a radical re-thinking of how we view animals in our society. Are they just property, just ‘dumb’ animals, or do we have a much, much greater responsibility for treating them as far more? Pet owners will have no trouble extending this stewardship. They already do so!
Check out the article if you have a few minutes. It’s an interesting read for both the scientist and romantic.