Many dog owners have long held the position that their canines feel complex emotions similar to humans, while skeptics have maintained that dogs aren’t capable of such feelings – or at the very least, that it can’t be proven that they do.
However, scientists have been conducting experiments that are eliminating the guesswork about canines, and evidence is mounting that dogs, indeed, have feelings similar to humans.
Two studies released earlier this year, summarized recently by mic.com, show that dogs prefer people over their own kind and understand the layers of human thought based on the kinds of sounds people make.
Researchers at Emory University conducted a two-year study in which a dozen dogs were trained to lie motionless (and unsedated) in an M.R.I. scanner while their brains were being scanned as the dogs were subjected to a variety of smells. The results showed that the dogs responded most positively to the smell of a familiar human, even over familiar dogs, in the caudate nucleus region of their brains – a “reward center” area that is paralleled in the human brain and processes such feelings as joy and affection.
Another neuroimaging study conducted at a Hungarian university measured canine brain activity in response to a variety of human and dog sounds and discovered that dogs are quite perceptive to the meaning of emotional human sounds, and that happy human sounds, especially, trigger a strong response in a dog’s auditory cortex. The results indicate that dogs often instinctively know how people are feeling.
Attila Andics, the lead author of the Hungarian study, told mic.com that some of what makes dogs different from other animals is that they will run to humans rather than away from them when they are scared (cats and horses tend to run away) and also that dogs are the only non-primates that hold eye contact with humans – when dogs don’t even hold eye contact with their own canine parents.
Andics concluded, “Bonding with owners is much more important for dogs than other pets.”
Meanwhile, Gregory Berns, leader of the Emory study, wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times and asserted that, “The ability (of a dog) 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 went on to assert that perhaps dogs shouldn’t be regarded as "property" and that they should be given legal rights to protect them against exploitation.