September 10, 2001

Emotional Dogs

Canine Bliss

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 radar.

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?

Mysterious Minds
Because 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.

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Geoffrey goes to the vet
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Happy Dog, Sad Dog
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.

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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 togetherness."

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.


Complex Emotions

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:

Dog lying down
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(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 getting.

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 "wrong"
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!


Simple Needs

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!

Dogs in jeep
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Anthropo... What?
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.

This story was written by Sorcha McDonagh, producer for Riverdeep, and admirer of quadrupeds everywhere.

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This story is based on the work of Bruce Fogle (DMV), Professor Marc Hauser, animal behavior expert Bill Campbell, and author Stephen Budiansky.

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