Science is showing what animal trainers, owners, and lovers have known forever: dogs feel some of the same emotions as humans. Emory University neuroeconomics professor Gregory Berns and his colleagues worked hard to train canine volunteers to accept MRI scans of their brains. (Note that the training was all-positive and never included sedation or restraint.) Those scan results demonstrate that a key brain area, the caudate nucleus, was activated in dogs in startling similar ways in which it is activated in humans. The caudate activation triggers, which for the dogs in Berns’ testing were signals for food and the smell and sight of familiar humans, are known to be associated with positive emotions.
The demonstrated existence of positive emotions in dogs led Berns to speculate about the future status and treatment of canines. If dogs have emotions, Berns says, “…we must reconsider their treatment as property.” In addition to the potential influence these and future neuroscientific results will have on the legal status of dogs, the results are already impacting the treatment and training of dogs. As an agility blogger pointed out recently, training principle and philosophy reviews logically should follow these results.
With scientific support, the reality of canine feelings will become more widely known and understood. Understanding and knowledge are likely to lead to an increased popularity of positive training methods. A growth in positive training practice—and perhaps the development of new, targeted, and powerful positive training tools—may also lead to a decrease in the use of harsher training methods. The hope is that it will be easier to sway those still attached to punishment-based methods toward more positive training when canine sentience is shown by science.
Read the full October 5, 2013 New York Times op-ed piece.
Read the full blog from agilitymach, including additional thoughts on the future of agility and speed training.