The Experts Finally Noticed

That dogs have feelings, emotions, and thoughts probably seems obvious to readers of this blog, as well as to most people who share their lives with pets. But, as I tell my students at Bergin U, sometimes things need the stamp of approval of science, via peer-reviewed research, to be fully accepted as Truth. Many, many studies of dogs’ behavior and cognitive abilities do not, actually, reveal anything that we didn’t already “know.” But these studies solidify that knowledge and induct it into the Body of Knowledge that gets academic credit, credibility, proof.

That’s why the establishment of a new scientific journal dedicated to the study of animal sentience is significant. Acknowledgement and study of animals’ thoughts and emotions has grown tremendously over the past twenty years or so. Now, those studies have their own journal. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling is a publication of the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy (HSISP), based in Washington D.C.

Alva Noë, a philosopher, says in an NPR article that “A new scientific journal is not merely a new venue for publishing research, it can encourage new science, create a new community of investigators and, to some degree, contribute to the establishing of new fields.”

That’s an exciting thought for people who care about nonhuman animals — and dogs in particular. For centuries, dogs were not considered worthy of academic study. Now, several universities host canine cognition labs; at Bergin U and elsewhere, students study the canine mind, along with canine behavior and communication, as they explore ways to expand the human-canine partnership.

The journal embraces a broad definition of sentience or “feeling”: “Feeling can be any sensation, such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving, wanting, pain, pleasure, emotion, mood, anticipation or intention.” Intention. Anticipation. I know that my dogs experience these higher-level “feelings.” I also know that generations of researchers have been ridiculed for asserting that dogs (or any nonhumans) could.

It matters that people recognize dogs’ sentience so that the we can improve how we, as individuals and as a society, treat dogs. Before we had anticruelty laws, we had to know that animals could suffer, could feel pain. Now, as we consider how dogs fit into our lives and our society, it is equally important to recognize that they feel more than pain. They think, wonder, plan, feel happy or sad, they grieve — and they empathize when we feel sadness or grief. How do we need to change our laws and our treatment of dogs to accommodate this new understanding?

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