RESEARCHERS have finally proven what animal lovers have known for centuries – dogs are people too.

Professor of Neuroeconomics Gregory Berns and his colleagues trained dogs to lie completely awake and unrestrained in MRI scanners in order to determine how their brains work and what they think of humans.

The problem with an experiment of this kind is that it requires absolute stillness and researchers couldn’t anesthetise the dogs because it shuts off brain function, which meant they had to be trained.

“From the beginning, we treated the dogs as persons” Professor Berns, who works at Atlanta’s Emory University wrote in The New York Times.

“We had a consent form, which was modelled after a child’s consent form but signed by the dog’s owner. We emphasised that participation was voluntary, and that the dog had the right to quit the study.

“We used only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.”

Professor Berns and his team found similar brain activity between dogs and humans in an area called “the caudate nucleus” which sits between the brain stem and the cortex.

For the first time the researchers were able to substantiate that dogs experience positive emotions like love and attachment and “a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child”.

In dogs the researchers found that brain activity in the caudate increased in response to food, familiar smells and people.

“In preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view,” he wrote.

“Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But 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.”

Professor Berns said the findings showed that we need to stop thinking of dogs as property and begin thinking of them as humans.

“Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property,” he wrote.

Dogs should be granted “personhood” in order to be afforded additional protection against exploitation, the researcher said. And they should be considered wards of the state if they are not treated properly by their owners.

“Perhaps someway we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings,” he wrote.