The most attractive aspects of dog ownership are the psychological connections we make with our pets and the social bonding we enjoy, and most owners would agree that the dog’s mind is intriguing in all its varieties and resulting behaviours.
However, while we may feel we understand our dogs, their true mindset is still a mystery to us, and to science. What do they actually think? Can they reason? And what do they feel emotionally and in relation to us, their family pack – do dogs experience empathy?
Dogs, without doubt, are still wild animals despite the ‘domesticated’ title bestowed on them. In simple terms, domestication involves humans breeding animals and selectively exaggerating and/ or modifying certain behaviours in order to manage the ‘wild’ in the animal, whether that’s a horse or a dog.
By default, however, domestication has altered the development of the dog’s brain.
We do, however, need to be always mindful of the danger of anthropomorphism, in other words humans projecting their own emotions onto animals.
Do dogs exhibit and feel sadness in the way humans do? Can changes in their lifestyle affect their emotional state?
Certainly dogs can project many familiar, outwardly recognisable signs of sadness that we can relate to. Each year, rescue organizations receive tens of thousands of unwanted dogs for myriad reasons. Problem behaviour is probably the most common of these, although an owner’s sudden death, or other acute change of circumstances, can be a catalyst for rehoming a much-loved dog.
Once separated from their owner these dogs can feel simply lost mind-wise, and become distressed and disorientated, exhibiting mild to serious anxiety-related behaviours that might include barking, whining, trying to chew their way out of the kennels and, in some cases, self harm — a scale of emotional signs that one cannot ignore from such sentient creatures.
Once ensconced in a rescue centre, these dogs may initially refuse to eat, and become fearful or aggressive. These are all acute emotional responses to the sudden life changes that the dog has experienced. Unlike with people who experience tumultuous events, we cannot explain to a dog what is happening to him, so his instincts and mindset can explode into a variety of upsetting behaviours. Clearly, these dogs have feelings and emotional needs, just as we do.
During the course of my work, I have observed hundreds of dogs in distressed states but, generally speaking, the dog’s basic temperament (if he’s socially balanced, and not overly dependent on one person or place), tends towards well-developed coping strategies and many dogs do adapt well to a new home. This is particularly the case if they’ve been under the care of an elite rescue centre, such as Chiltern Rescue in Buckinghamshire. This centre regularly deals with such dogs and is skilled in helping them cope with the changes associated with being abandoned – they observe many dogs in stressful states and believe that canine emotions are similar to ours.
Dogs generally exhibit a happy state when their lead is produced before a walk or other excursion or adventure. Depending on breed, their face appears to take on what I would describe as a dog-happy appearance -their entire body changes physiologically into an expressive mode of uplifting, wriggling happiness and frantic tail-wagging.
All dogs’ brains have a pleasure centre; dopamine is released when dogs exude pleasure behaviour in a way not dissimilar to chemical releases in humans, so it’s fair to conclude that something similar is going on in their brains too.
However, is a dog displaying an instinctive reaction, or an emotion, as in humans? We are simply not sure, but what we do know is that dogs possess receptors that are associated with human emotions and are located in the same part of the brain. At present, how a dog interprets the activity is open to speculation, not science.
Also, we must not forget that some canine senses (smell, for example) are far more acutely developed than ours so interpretation of the dog’s outward behaviour can be hard to quantify, especially when olfactory senses are involved.
It is evident to all dog owners returning home that our dogs appear overjoyed to see us, but is that because of learned conditioning or genuine emotional happiness? To be honest, it’s probably a combination of the two.
If you watch an agility dog complete his round, he links this with an expectation of physical and vocal interaction with his owner that is less, or more, animated depending on the trainer’s rewarding style. The dog is experiencing happiness, as we can see -but the nature of it is, without doubt, a learned component from the handler too. Is that any different to humans and how we learn to react when something joyous occurs?
EMPATHY & REASONING
This is the big one. Can dogs relate to how we feel and, furthermore, understand what we’re actually experiencing and connect to us as other humans do? Many dog owners claim they can, but I am not convinced. Dogs, without doubt, can comfort us — this can be seen by their reactions to our emotional state when we are stressed or unhappy, say – but scientists have not yet proved this is an empathetic connection between dogs and people.
Various studies have been carried out with people feigning heart attacks, for example, or pretending to be trapped, yet the studies showed no Lassie-like ability to understand (empathize) and run for help.
It’s similar to when you fall over and hurt yourself. Dogs generally pile in and think it’s all a great game, however much discomfort you are in. The vocalizations humans emit in such situations do seem to connect with dogs, despite their acute interest in what we are doing — but, again it’s not possible to discern what the dog is thinking.
Can dogs become grumpy? Yes they can, but again I would add that this is partly down to early training and conditioning; dogs can only show their emotional state through their own language, one of which is vocalization, so growling can be a warning of displeasure.
Recently, I dealt with a criminal law case of a dangerous dog, which concerned a terrier. When the woman lifted her dog onto her lap, which she was keen to do, the dog growled, snapped and raised his upper lip in a snarl. The noise was horrendous. The owner smiled sweetly at me and said: “Oh, he does get grumpy.”
It was more like an aggressive response, although the dog didn’t actually bite. You can decide whether that’s mere grumpiness, full-on aggression, or simple aggression without the end bite — just a loud communication of displeasure. Either way, it is not a behaviour I would tolerate.
I think it’s wise to try to differentiate between an animal’s irritable grumpiness from lack of sleep, say, and aggressive behaviour from an inherent predisposition. This is not always easy for the lay person to discern.
If you watch dogs playing there comes a time when one or other of the playmates becomes tired, just as we might ourselves. I have observed countless dogs attempt to get their pal to play again, only to receive a snap, growl, lift of the lip, or other indication from the tired dog that that’s enough play for today. Is this aggression? No, not really; it’s basic language from dog to dog — in this case, from a tired and possibly grumpy dog saying he’s had enough.
I think dog owners already know the answer to this one. Like people, dogs adapt and become conditioned to the situations they find themselves in, and some of the circumstances I’ve outlined under the section on sadness partly explain lonesomeness too.
The dog is intrinsically a pack animal; like his cousin the wolf, he thrives in a group and has developed a complex language for such inter-pack exchanges of information. This is why humans get on so well with dogs because we share the trait of group cooperation.
SHOWING OFF & PLAYFULNESS
This is a huge subject to address as it can lead to areas of psychology and behaviour that are endless. We would first have to define what ‘showing off means, which is our interpretation of the dog’s behaviour. Dogs, by nature, are extrovert and certainly we can describe the dog as an animal that makes a bid for attention and reaps the rewards that brings.
Dogs are acutely intelligent and those breeds that are particularly focused on human contact, such as herding breeds, certainly know how to act or behave in a way to get us more involved. They may bring a ball for retrieve games, for example, or indulge in a display of barking to try to get some contact from the owner through a plethora of techniques. The most obvious reason for this need of interaction is that, first, as intelligent creatures they like being involved in what we’re doing at any time of the day or night. Those dogs that have had more human-dog interaction from puppyhood – whether through play, training or walking trips — will tend to have the highest IQ.
However, our moods change and we can’t always respond the way a dog wants us to, any more than we can with a toddler; it’s often all about timing and depends on whatever else is going on. That’s when show-off dogs might deploy their games of ‘Look at me! Look what I’ve nicked!’ — your sock, wallet or whatever. Or they might start barking at the window when nobody’s there, knowing you’ll come and have a look too, so you’ll be conned once again and pay them attention.
I think we can put down showing off as attention-seeking behaviour — often for miscreant reasons but, mostly, for the right ones; our family pack enjoying life together.
THE PACK & BEREAVEMENT
I have placed this towards the end because it is very special; dogs who like company — human or canine — do experience serious emotional states of distress when their best doggy friend from the family pack dies.
The amount of anecdotal evidence on this subject is huge. Vets in particular have many stories to tell as they are often on the receiving end of clients’ concerns about the remaining pet.
Some dogs appear listless for days, even weeks, as their canine friend is no longer there as pack support. Dogs have rank and place that they sort out among themselves and one dog will always be a leader, however equal the relationship may appear. The signs of who is in charge are often quite subtle, though in some cases they may be more obvious.
But when one dog in a household dies, it doesn’t really matter who was the leader; the loss is felt by the remaining dog just as keenly, although a dog that has relied for his confidence on a stronger canine leader may feel not just loss, but insecurity and more. These emotions and changes in the dog’s state of mind may sometimes be observed, but the resultant behavioural changes are often rapid.
In the case of a lower-ranking dog, once he’s recovered from the change in the pack dynamic he will often become more bold and more extrovert — hundreds of owners have reported this phenomenon to me. They say the remaining dog appears different and does things he never did before, such as being more demanding of attention or more playful. It is a pack change, but understanding why this takes place is less easy for us to define. What we can say is that the dog’s feelings are real and the behavioural changes are evidence of an emotionally changed state.
It seems we share so much with dogs and other animals that have evolved in familial groups. One day we may have all the answers but for the moment we simply have to observe the behaviours and try to intelligently guess what’s going on. Unfortunately, canine scientific research in Britain is inadequate so we will no doubt have to wait some time before more secrets of our dogs behaviours and emotions are unraveled.
DO DOGS REASON?
Of course, all that I have written begs the often-asked question: can dogs and other mammals of higher intelligence reason — which, in brief, is the capacity to make sense of things around them? My answer is always the same; I have seen little evidence of dogs reasoning by any human standards, but I have no doubt that a dog can reason in the most elementary way, just as a two-year-old child can (which, of course, is very limited).
My view is based on nearly 40 years of work with canines but I am always open to other ideas and views, and other people’s experiences. I have listened to thousands of stories about how a dog saved a child, or detected some great disaster about to occur but, when investigated, these incidences are not supported by evidence of reasoning -although I am sure many would disagree with me.
We now know that elephants and other social mammals have far higher intelligence and emotional responses than we credited them with previously, and this is an exciting field to read about. Why should dogs be any different? I guess that if canine emotions are as developed as a toddler’s, then it’s on a sliding scale like my comments on reasoning ability. However, while the toddler will go on to develop full capabilities in reasoning as an adult, the dog will stay put on his lower scale.
One thing is certain: dogs are not dumb animals; they are acutely intelligent and complex creatures — the most successful importation into the human domestic world from the wild. Colin Tennant