“Your dog doesn’t love you.” – My brother has said to this my sister throughout the years in spite of her insistence that her dog Carmella does, truly does, love her.
He’s convinced that Carmella’s relationship with her is based solely on the fulfillment of her needs—primarily Carmella’s food needs, which are all-consuming (no pun intended). John isn’t convinced, no matter how much my sister makes a case for it, that Carmella’s behavior is evidence of true love.
I admit that, for a long time, I thought the same thing, even about my own dogs, especially Stella, whose behavior towards me has always seemed more like disdainful tolerance, rather than true affection. In the case of Carmella, I, too, assumed that her close bond to Carolyn stemmed from years of lavish treat-giving. A dog would have to be a fool, or a cat, to bite the hand of the person who puts the casserole dish on the floor after the humans have had their dinner.
But now, I’m happy to say to my brother—YOU’RE WRONG! Wrong. Because, researchers have discovered, through the amazing magic of MRI scanning, that dogs do experience the same feeling of love that humans do. Without all the shaming and petty disagreements over leaving the toilet seat up, however.
Scientists at Emory University, a place that receives lots of money to do useful studies, were interested in finding out how dogs’ brains work. They already know how cats’ brains work, which is to pursue killing or taunting their owners in the most devious ways imaginable. No mystery there.
The researcher, Gregory Berns, and his colleagues, first trained the dog subjects to tolerate the noise of the MRI machine. Frankly, if my dogs can tolerate the sound of my singing, I’m sure that getting used to the racket inside an MRI is nothing.
This study was done the right way, instead of faking the results and creating a not-really-controlled control group. They even obtained consent forms from the dogs’ owners! And witnessed by an inked paw print at the bottom of the form, too.
What they’ve discovered is that a dog’s brain isn’t that different from our own. Fascinating. That helps explain my snarling at strangers who get on the elevator with me just to get to one floor above or below.
The magic of this chemistry occurs in the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that both humans and dogs share. I don’t know about cats. They’re not into sharing.
The caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love, money and the upcoming season of The Walking Dead.
What Berns discovered was this: “…many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.”
Go ahead and call it love Dr. Berns. You know you want to.
Berns even proposes that dogs “have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.” I admit to feeling a bit uncomfortable about that, considering my aversion to human children. But I do dress my dogs in human-like clothes. There’s that. And they get Christmas and birthday presents. And play dates.
The most startling comment made by Berns has to do with assigning “limited personhood” status to dogs. Before you get all uppity and indignant about that, you non-dog lovers, consider this: If the Supreme Court can grant citizenship to corporations, they sure as hell can do the same for my dogs. And, frankly, dogs behave much more responsibly as persons than 99% of corporations do. We let nincompoops vote, why not my dogs?
Assigning personhood to dogs is a fine thing for me. Most of the time I’d rather spend time with dogs rather than humans, anyway. And knowing that my dogs love me makes Valentine’s Day just a bit less gruesome for this single woman.
Carolyn, the next time your brother denies that Carmella loves you, really loves you, point him to this study. Tell him to get used to thinking of Carmella as a sentient being who loves him, too. As Jane Seymour says, “If Your Heart Is Open, Love Will Always Find Its Way In.”