It's a good day
for walking a good day for checking out the fields.
Geoffrey, a six-year-old mutt who never ignores his instinct
to hunt, detects the inviting aroma of rabbit on the breeze.
Geoffrey stops for a minute and searches the air with his
nose. Then he sees the quick flash of a white fluffy tail.
Aha! RABBIT! He drops down low into the grass, back flattened,
head forward. Then he begins to move forward stealthily, measuring
every step, making sure he doesn't appear on the rabbit's
I watch in awe. Here is our family dog, well fed, accustomed
to snoring by the stove, scared of the vet and he's
acting like a hungry wolf stalking deer in the wild. In the
end, the chase turns into a comedy because the rabbit easily
outwits him but he seems deliriously happy as he bounds
around the field.
It makes me wonder: What is Geoffrey really feeling? What's
going through his mind? Is there some simple equation in his
brain (Chasing rabbits = Happiness), or is there something
more complex going on?
we can't ask dogs these kinds of questions, it's up to us humans
to make observations and come to reasonable conclusions. But
it's a tricky task because of the way we feel about dogs. It's
a lot easier to make clinical observations about a hamster than
about a loveable fur ball who likes to chase his own tail.
So, the challenge for animal behaviorists is to try to interpret
dogs' behavior in an objective way to see their behavior
for what it is rather than how we would like to see it.
We dog owners like to believe that our dogs love us unconditionally,
that they jump up on us to "hug" us, or that they sympathize
when we're miserable. On the flip-side, we believe that dogs
feel guilty when they know they've been bad, or that they are
capable of doing things to get revenge on us (such as wrecking
the house if we leave them alone for too long).
All of these assumptions suggest that we see dogs as very emotional
creatures, almost on a par with humans. The truth is, in making
these assumptions, we're giving dogs too much credit. Most animal
behaviorists agree that dogs do have an emotional life
but just how much of an emotional life they have is the subject
of some debate.
Happy Dog, Sad
Can dogs look happy and sad? The answer is yes. Dog
owners know about the dog's body language. Many of their ways
of communicating are inherited from their wild ancestors,
the wolves (such as tail-wagging); other behaviors have developed
over the 100,000 years of living with humans (such as "smiling").
In his book The Truth About Dogs, author Stephen Budiansky
writes, "Millions of years of wolf evolution have selected
such behaviors because they are socially effective; thousands
of years of dog evolution have fine-tuned such behaviors so
that they are socially effective on people."
So, dogs have ways of communicating their moods to us
and it's important that we understand them.
Dogs and Humans: Compatible Creatures
Dogs and humans are both social animals. Veterinarian and author
of The Dog's Mind, Bruce Fogle, writes, "Dogs make such
good companions because they are pack animals. They thrive on
The most satisfying part of life for dogs is hanging out with
the pack. The "pack" can include both other dogs and humans,
and it has a strict social order. As Fogle says, "Dogs simply
don't expect equality. Their minds are not wired up in that
configuration." Social structure is crucial for dogs, and they
will establish a pecking order with dominant and subdominant
citizens (both canine and human!).
You can observe pack activity in your own house because your
dog's routine will be synchronized with yours. The dog rests
when you do and most likely wants to eat when you do, too. As
Fogle describes it, "Pack members should all rest at the same
time and be active together. If the pack members are all full
of energy, then the group is a powerful hunting unit." This
natural instinct of the dog's is carried over into his domestic
life with you.
Considering how your dog views his place in the pack will help
you understand how your dog feels.
What are the limits of a dog's emotions? If a dog can feel happy,
sad, angry, and afraid, does this mean that he can also feel
guilty, get jealous, or get embarrassed? No, says Marc Hauser,
a Harvard University professor who wrote the book Wild Minds.
He explains the distinction between types of emotions: "When
we step away from the core emotions such as anger and fear that
all animals are likely to share, we find other emotions such
as guilt, embarrassment, and shame that depend critically on
a sense of self and others… These emotions are uniquely human."
This idea can be difficult to grasp. Think about Geoffrey for
a moment. It's not possible for him to feel embarrassed, simply
because he is not concerned with how others perceive him in
the complex way that people are. Consider these two examples:
(1) There is no such thing
as a jealous dog...
Whenever I pet Geoffrey, our other dog, April, butts right
in. She appears to be jealous of the attention Geoffrey is
In fact, April is not jealous. She is simply asserting her
dominance over Geoffrey. She is first in the pecking order,
so as far as she is concerned, she should get the attention
and not him. It has nothing to do with jealousy and everything
to do with dominance.
(2) ...and there's no such
thing as a guilty dog!
Dogs don't feel guilt. If Geoffrey accidentally pees on
the kitchen floor, he won't feel bad about doing something
but he will worry because he knows he's done something the
humans won't like. He doesn't want to be yelled at. There
is a big difference between feeling guilty and simply not
wanting to be yelled at!
To keep both dogs and their humans happy, it is vitally important
to realize that dogs do not experience these types of emotions.
This is especially true in negative situations: It is easy to
accuse a dog of being "bad" when the reality is that
the dog was only doing something that made sense to him, with
no malicious intent whatsoever.
A dog's motives are never complex or devious: He usually just
want to get attention, get food, or get exercise! Above all,
he wants to be happy in his pack!
The human tendency to think of dogs as having complex motives
(such as getting revenge) is quite natural. We even think
this about the weather when there's a storm, we feel
like nature is out to get us. Humans like to see the weather,
animals, and other objects as having human characteristics,
probably as a way of trying to understand them.
The name for this tendency is "anthropomorphism" (an-thro-po-morf-ism).
This habit of ours is at the heart of some of our poor interpretations
of dogs' behavior.
Stephen Budiansky puts it well: "Dogs that are treated as
furry little people… are not happy dogs, for they suffer the
consequences of our unrealistic expectations. Grasping what
makes dogs tick is a way to avoid a lot of misunderstanding,
hurt feelings, and unnecessary strife in our ever so peculiar
relationship with them."
To take the best care of our dogs, we need to understand where
they're coming from. Knowing their emotional limits does not
mean that we disrespect them. It's hard to argue with their
extraordinary abilities as hunters, navigators, playmates,
and all-round good buddies. There are good reasons why humans
and dogs have shared their lives for 100,000 years
and they are the same reasons that will keep us together for
thousands of years to come.
story was written by Sorcha McDonagh, producer for Riverdeep,
and admirer of quadrupeds everywhere.