This article by Susan McDonald is reproduced from theguardian.com, Monday 17 March 2014 15.05 AEST
New research on canine sentience will come as no surprise to dog lovers, but it may be a game-changer in the quest for dogs’ rights.
The park can be a dangerous place, and I’m not talking about vicious dogs. It’s the two-legged beasts you have to watch out for.
I was there the other day with my Jack Russell, who spotted a jogger and took off behind him, yapping. A soothing voice would have calmed him but instead came a tirade of abuse (barking, you could say) directed first at the dog, then at me. The dog responded in kind and the jogger promptly kicked him. Then he stormed in my direction. I said, “Are you going to kick me?”, which brought a pause to his fury, long enough for the dog and me to run for the car.
It was all so unnecessary, so disproportionate. My little dog barks too much for his own good, but he will respond gently if gentleness is offered. As will most dogs, given half a chance.
You don’t have to take my word for it: science says so, too. A recent series of studies in the US suggest that dogs recognise kindness and give trust in return; that they experience emotions like love and attachment, like humans.
Unlike previous research into canine sentience, this time researchers were able to use an MRI. No mean feat when you remember that the subject must be awake; you can’t map brain activity in an anesthetised dog. Uncomfortable as the scan is, even for humans, unrestrained dogs were trained to sit rock-still – and even more remarkably, this was achieved using only positive training methods based on trust. The dogs were treated as human children would be: their owners had to sign a consent form to enable them to participate, and the dogs were allowed to leave if they wanted.
As if any further evidence was needed of the dogs’ sentience, the scan enabled the researchers to map activity in the caudate nucleus – that area of the brain where emotions can be measured in dogs as in humans. They found that activity increased in response to hand signals indicating food, smells of familiar dogs and people, and the return of a familiar human. A subsequent experiment showed activity increased when dogs heard the voice of someone familiar (and no, not just the person who fed them).
The inescapable conclusion, wrote one of the researchers, Gregory Burns, in an op-ed in the New York Times, was that “dogs are people, too”.
This will come as no surprise to dog lovers. We’ve always felt that, at some level, our dogs love us back. But it is evidence “we can no longer hide from”, wrote Burns. “Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives) seem to have emotions just like us.”
I wonder what the jogger would think. His mind seemed made up about dogs and about his right to treat them how he wished. He’s not the only one. Even in a supposedly dog-loving country like Australia, in which 40% of households have a dog, many people treat them badly and think nothing of it – in research laboratories, in commercial breeding operations known as puppy farms, at the dog racing track. Otherwise law-abiding people keep dogs chained, leave them alone in apartments, or abandon them when they are deemed too difficult. Then they’re put down at the pound because people prefer to get a dog from a puppy farm by way of a pet shop.
Of course, dog lovers have minor victories. Look at the good news story of Sochi’s strays. Sentenced by the city to be culled in the leadup to the winter Olympics, their plight caused outrage on social media and many were rescued. Some were adopted, others housed in a newly built shelter. It was a kind response to what is a worldwide epidemic, estimates putting the global number of stray dogs at about 300 million.
Social media can’t solve a problem that big; they can’t all be adopted. There needs to be a sea change in the way we think about dogs. Sporadic waves of sentiment aren’t enough.
That’s why the latest research is so important. If Canis lupus familiaris can be shown to have emotions, and a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child, there is a moral imperative to reassess how they are treated under law.
“We must reconsider their treatment as property,” says Burns.
Dogs are not property. They are loyal, loving companions who reward kindness and consistency with devoted service. WH Auden was right: “In dark hours their silence may be of more help than many two-legged comforters.” That gives them a special place in our lives and the right not to be abandoned, enslaved, demonised, turned into vicious guards or even treated as fashion accessories. (Auden noted the debasement of dogs by “those who crave a querulous permanent baby or a little detachable penis.”)
They deserve respect. And their rights are not lesser rights, separate from human rights; giving dogs the protection they deserve adds to our humanity. As Ghandi said, it’s an indicator of a nation’s moral progress.
Burns suggests a legal guardianship of dogs to replace ownership. Such a reclassification would provide dogs with a much greater right to protection and could become the legal underpinning of stricter regulation over their use in research, racing and breeding; harsher penalties for abuse; and more protection for strays.
Several US cities, including Los Angeles, have already enacted laws that require pet shops to source dogs from shelters rather than puppy farms. That would be a good place for Australia to start.
And more such reform must follow. If dogs are people, they must have rights too.
With thanks to Susan McDonald
Photographs: Susan McDonald for the Guardian