Dog Laws & Sentience: A Scientist’s Epiphany

by Mary Haight on October 18, 2014

Dog LawsIf you’ve been following the new studies on dogs conducted over the last few years, you’re likely to have been surprised, amazed, even thrilled at least once at what is being discovered — how much language dogs are capable of learning, the range of emotions they feel, how they think and how some reason. Do these discoveries have the impact needed to see dog laws as woefully behind the evolutionary curve?

60 Minutes’ recent show featured a segment with Dr. Brian Hare, Evolutionary Anthropologist and Director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Duke University and his website, Dognition, which measures various types of intelligence people’s dogs exhibit according to the tests given. The results become part of his data, delving into the mind of dogs, but importantly helps dog owners understand how their dog’s mind works.

There was a lengthy piece on Chaser, that wonder of a Border Collie whose human, John Pilley, a psychologist (retired), has spent hundreds of hours teaching her more than 1000 words describing her toys, and due to sheer numbers, includes a feature particular to each one before asking Chaser to find it. She understands the difference between verbs and nouns, and gets the requested toy right 95% of the time.

I had known of Chaser for a couple of years, and have followed Brian Hare’s work too, so this was not news to me, yet I could watch or listen to this kind of work all day! But either I missed the clip that follows below, or it simply wasn’t part of the feature. Either way, seeing it became one of those incredible moments that find you — you know what I mean? — when you know something important has been said by someone who is an authority, who can help influence change. It was the kind of comment that ripples through many conversations that need to be had about the status of current dog laws.

This is Dr. Gregory S. Burns, Professor of Neuroeconomics, Emory University. He designed the methodology for using functional MRI testing “to study canine cognitive function in awake, unrestrained dogs”. His answer to Anderson Cooper’s question if there was any difference in his thinking about dogs before these studies and after is that moment I spoke of. Listen if you have two minutes. Let me know what you think!


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