Wednesday, October 9, 2013

We've come a long way in understanding dogs' emotions, but does the way that we treat them measure up?

As one who works with and writes about animals every day — along with those in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behavior, ethology and dog training – being accused of anthropomorphism is a regular occurrence. I don’t think that it necessarily bothers any of us, and if anything, propels us to work more on behalf of creating a better life for animals.

An opinion piece that was published in the New York Times’ online edition over the weekend echoed much of what I’ve written over the past few years: animals – in this case dogs – have emotional needs that deserve more care and consideration.

Last year, I wrote about a study that the author of the piece, Gregory Berns and his colleagues conducted by way of using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner to get a glimpse into the canine brain.

In the NYT piece, titled, ‘Dogs Are People, Too’, Berns expands on the findings of the study and proposes that the way we view dogs needs to change.

The study yielded interesting insight into how dogs react when presented with favorable stimuli, like hand signals indicating food, smells – most excitingly, the sight of a familiar human.

These responses are linked to area of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is sandwiched between the brainstem and cortex, and loaded with dopamine receptors. This is the area that Berns and his colleagues found especially interesting because of its similarities in dogs and humans, as many of the same stimuli that motivate activity in that region of the brain are the same: food, closeness to those that we love, things like that.

Neuroscientists refer to this as a functional homology, and in dogs, it can be an indicator of emotions.

The importance of positive experiences in a canine's life is nothing new, in fact I’ve written about many topics related to this. These positive experiences are crucial to establish a solid footing early in life so that dogs are properly socialized, which helps to connect-the-dots, so to speak, allowing them to develop the tools to navigate challenges, daily life and to form favorable bonds with other animals and humans.

Older dogs that struggle socially because they might have missed out on the opportunity to have had those positive experiences and socialization can benefit from having their fair share of caudate nucleus stimulation, as well.

Studies have demonstrated this, even with fearful dogs.

Oh, the power of comfort, compassion and love.

All of that said, the ability of dogs to be able to form attachments to humans, and as I have been witness to, some very close and complex bonds with the humans in their life – myself included, even as a caregiver – needs a fresh examination.

Understanding what we do now about how the canine brain works should be cause to keep the conversation ignited about how we treat dogs and other animals.

Anthropomorphic? I think not.

After all, we’ve come a long way since the days of Decartes’ assertion that only humans have minds.

These days, we certainly don’t mind putting those great animal minds to work in law enforcement, as military working dogs or service animals or to perform search and rescue duties.

The military is even considering the prospect of using MRI technology to recruit the best canine candidates to use as military working dogs.

It’s clear that we as humans understand their ability to think and learn in those capacities and as house pets.

But are we measuring up when it comes to the way that we consider how they might feel about things, or if something makes them genuinely uncomfortable, for example?

The tide is turning in many ways; using terms like ‘guardian’ (though I prefer ‘human’), rather than ‘pet owner’ when it comes to expressing our capacity in their lives, and in recent decades, we’ve understood more about how pets experience pain (just like we do – what an epiphany!) and mechanisms that can be used to mitigate it, and of course other ways.

As humans, we’ve made great strides in opening our eyes to what animals experience, and dogs are proving to be integral in making that happen. As the single species that has had to adapt faster than any other to the very human world that we’ve created and purposely included them in, we owe that to them.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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