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!

 

9 comments
HeartLikeADog
HeartLikeADog

Personally I hope his message really gets out there.  So many people don't see animals this way and it's a shame really.  Those of us with dogs know that they do have feelings just like we do.  They may not articulate them the same way, but they do have them.

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@HeartLikeADog Hi Jodi, Yes, I agree and am glad science is finally studying dogs. I think it will help dogs status in the law and continue to change how people see them. Thanks for stopping by =)

DogIdentifier
DogIdentifier

Really interesting - I do know some people have trouble calling a dog's bond to their human "love" vs. "loyalty." I can't help but think it's love!


Also interesting what Dr. Gregory says about dogs as property, when really they have complex enough emotions that they probably should be treated more as people than property.

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@DogIdentifier There are so many studies on animals showing love to their parents, offspring, to their siblings, I don't understand how people still think otherwise :) The dogs as property is of most interest to me -- how will we reconcile the fact of sentience? Dogs are self-aware, they have emotions, memory. Though not as advanced as ours, from a human point of view, this has important implications in many areas

Thanks for stopping by!

DogIdentifier
DogIdentifier

@MaryEHaight

I agree - it doesn't make sense to treat dogs as cars! We know they are so much more than a decoration or compliment. They are truly members of the family.

Leah Erb
Leah Erb

I guess it's natural to measure dogs' (and other animals') abilities by comparing them to humans' ... what they can learn from us, whether they have emotions like us, etc.  It would be interesting to be able to measure what we can learn from them :->  I don't think "dogs are people, too", though.  We have different understandings of the world. 

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@Leah Erb  So much of what dogs do for humans is based on them being "like" us, as in Cancer research...we learned that what works for dogs generally works for humans so dogs get the new treatments first. I think the author meant it as a clever, funny title to engage people who like dogs =)

For so long dogs and animals generally have been/are treated like property by the law, as if they have no feelings. Now we know, definitively, that is not true. That should change the way the law, and many people, treat them. I hope. Thanks for speaking up and enriching the conversation Leah!
 

Leah Erb
Leah Erb

@MaryEHaight @Leah Erb Ah, makes sense.  It sounds like it's hard for the legal system to handle pets as anything other than possessions.

MaryEHaight
MaryEHaight moderator

@Leah Erb @MaryEHaight Yes, that sounds right -- where would they start? Where would they draw lines? A very interesting line of thought and even more exciting to see what changes may come of this. =)

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