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Dogs are people too, researcher says

ATLANTA — Man's best friend uses the same part of their brain as humans to feel, and researchers said this means we should rethink the rights we give canine companions.

Dogs operate on the same level of awareness and feeling as a small child, according to researchers at Emory University. They trained 12 dogs to sit still, while unrestrained and awake, in MRI machines to allow researchers to study patterns in their brain.

“Now, after training and scanning a dozen dogs, my one inescapable conclusion is this: dogs are people, too,” wrote researcher Gregory Berns in an editorial for The New York Times published Sunday.

Berns said scientists in the past have faced challenges because they could only rely on behavioral studies to try and figure out what dogs are thinking, but this time M.R.I. scans allowed them to better see dogs' emotions.

The striking similarity between the structure and function of the caudate nucleus in the brain of humans and dogs cannot be ignored, Berns said. The caudate is important for anticipating things we love, like food, he said.

“Many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate,” Berns said.

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs,” he said.

Researchers treated dogs the same as humans from the beginning of the study, Berns said. Just as some people don't like the idea of being trapped in an MRI machine and opt not to take the test, they let dogs who weren't interested in being scanned off the hook.

Berns even scanned his own dog, a black terrier mix rescued from a shelter named Callie. He said they built an MRI simulator in his apartment to train her.

Because dogs, and possibly other animals, seem to have emotions similar to our own, we should rethink how we consider them to be property, Berns said.

“Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings,” he said.