- Nearly 50 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, some dogs remain set in their ways
- Neuroscientist reluctantly admits some dogs in his study can be racist
- Says dogs have the emotional intelligence of a small child
- New study puts canine brain under MRI
Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. It’s available for purchase on Amazon, and you can get it at Barnes and Noble. Although this has nothing to do with his work, when pressed by David Feldman on his radio program, Dr. Berns admitted that some of his canine test subjects were racist.
David: Professor Burns, thank you for joining us.
Gregory Berns: Oh, it’s great to be here.
David: We’ll see about that. I’ve wanted you on my program ever since you wrote a piece in ‘The New York Times’ that was just fantastic. It’s entitled ‘Dogs Are People, Too.‘ I’m more of the glass is half full kind of guy, so I like to think people are dogs, too. I wish humans could be more like dogs.
You’ve scanned the brains of dogs using an MRI. You concluded that dogs have the emotional intelligence of a small child and that in the not too distant future Americans will be fighting for the rights of dogs the same way we fight for the rights of humans. Do you really believe that?
Gregory Berns: I kind of believe it. I think it’s actually already becoming a serious cause. I think San Diego has already passed laws that you can’t sell dogs from puppy mills.
David: Are people upset that you’re giving dogs MRI’s?
Gregory Berns: Yeah. I get at least an email a day that says, ‘Why are you MRI’ing dogs? I can’t get my HMO to get me an MRI.’
David: Why are you MRI’ing dogs? It is serious stuff, so why are you doing this?
Gregory Berns: Because they can’t speak.
David: And what are you trying to find, Dr. Dolittle?
Gregory Berns: I’m trying to find out how their brains work. I take it for granted that they do have some form of dog love for us that I think bears a lot of similarity to our feelings. But, because they can’t speak they don’t have human language; they can’t express it.
I’m a scientist. I’m not satisfied just to take their behaviors at face value as demonstration of that. I want to know what’s going on in their heads that make them do what they do.
David: So, you’ve found the love center, the… What is it? The…
Gregory Berns: The caudate nucleus.
David: Okay. And on the MRI, what does it look like and how do you test for love when they’re…
Gregory Berns: Yeah. Well, it’s not the love center. There is no center of love. That structure in particular we know from human studies when we see that it’s active we know that the person is anticipating something that they like and that they have a tendency to go out and get. It’s only through the specific circumstances in our experiments with the dogs that we can kind of back out by analogy what a human would be feeling when presented with exactly the same things.
Do dogs love one another?
David: Do dogs love one another?
Gregory Berns: Oh, that’s a good question. You know, people tell me that their dogs are best friends, but I don’t think we know that for sure. It would be kind of remarkable, because in most households the dogs are completely unrelated. So, I don’t know, but that’s something we could test.
David: The love between a dog and a human is more powerful than the love between a dog and another dog.
Gregory Berns: Yes, at least the dogs that we’re studying. But, I mean of course they all come from very good homes and their people love them, too. But, I think dogs are so socially flexible they can bond with anything, I mean any other living thing.
David: Do dogs share with other dogs?
Gregory Berns: Good question. I don’t…
David: Are they collaborative?
Gregory Berns: I don’t know the answer to that. I mean my dogs aren’t. I’ve got three dogs and they can’t agree to corner a squirrel up a tree.
David: We just lost Anya our French poodle died. She was a racist. We had a postman who was black, and she would bark sight unseen when he came to the house. When the FedEx guy came–and he was white–she didn’t bark. In the last year of her life she was completely blind. She would still bark at black people.
Gregory Berns: It’s true. We have racist dogs in our project.
When pressed on the subject, Dr. Berns admits some dogs are racist
Gregory Berns: Yes.
David: Okay, go ahead.
Gregory Berns: I won’t name names. I’m not going to call anyone out. But, there are a couple of dogs in our project who start barking exactly the way you said. So we have to take a lot of care when they’re here at the facility and we’re scanning them. We have to put a sign on the door that says dog scanning in progress and please don’t enter.
David: I would assume that dogs have been trained to be racist.
Gregory Berns: I wouldn’t assume that. The only assumption I make is that dogs can distinguish people by their skin color. For whatever kind of past associations the dog has with skin color, it manifests. The dogs that behave that way have all been rescues.
David: Will they be racist against whites, or is it strictly black people?
Gregory Berns: Well, I assume it could go both ways. I haven’t seen any dogs in our project racist against white people. Well, you know, who knows? We have some dogs that just don’t like strangers regardless of their color.
Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. It’s available for purchase on Amazon, and you can get it at Barnes and Noble.
What do you think? Have you ever encountered a racist dog? I’d like to know. Please share your comments below.