Canine Emotions

(Originally written for DogWatch, a newsletter for the general public from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine)

My dog and I spend a lot of time together and I’m convinced she’s capable of experiencing the same emotions I do. However a friend says that she’s responding to instinct, not emotion. Is that true?

The belief that our animals can experience at least some of the same feelings as we do surely ranks among the primary reasons why we have them. Who in their right mind would invest all the energy needed to train well-behaved puppies and dogs if we couldn’t share this special dimension with them? Admittedly some people are willing to settle for a computerized pet, but for most of us the idea that our dogs can recognize our emotions and that we recognize theirs serves as the foundation of the relationship.

But are we deluding ourselves? No and yes. Thanks to the evolution of increasingly sophisticated research techniques, we do know that animals possess receptors in the same places for the same substances that are associated with certain emotions in humans.  What we don’t know is if animals either experience or interpret those emotions the same way we do. The closest we can come to determining if they do is to look at the results.

For example, consider wild pups who display  a freeze fear response when a potential predator approaches. The more immobile the pups remain, the less likely the predator will notice it. In this particular situation,  fear serves a very positive, life-saving function. A person who believes that dogs are incapable of conscious thought might exclaim, “What a wonderful instinct!” whereas those who believe dogs can think would gush, “What a smart pup!” However, those who interpret canine behavior strictly in terms of their own human experience might murmur “Oh, that poor scared pup!”

Domestication and a close human-animal relationship may further muddy the waters. Imagine Ms. Smith placing her puppy Lotus on a cold stainless steel table in a busy veterinary hospital. Dr. Jovial rushes into the room in a flurry of unfamiliar sounds, scents, and movements, and Lotus freezes in fear. But she doesn’t just freeze. She also drools and may even tremble, either constantly or in periodic waves. So while she may appear rooted to the spot, the drooling and trembling would make her an easy target for a predator were she in the wild.

Nonetheless, while such a display might cost a wild pup her life and thereby eliminate that characteristic from the gene pool, this behavior in a human setting may elicit a completely different response. Because many people relate to their pets as human family members instead of as family members who also belong to a different species with different needs, interpreting Lotus’s behavior in human terms makes perfectly good sense to them. If Ms. Smith and/or Dr. Jovial immediately reward Lotus’s with extra cooing affection and maybe even a treat in an attempt to soothe her fears, then the innate canine fear response takes on a whole new meaning. Where it serves to save the life of the wild pup from predators, it becomes a way for some domestic puppies to can gain attention and even food.

At this point things can get really complicated. When Lotus freezes and shivers, is something truly frightening her or does she just want attention? (Remember the little boy who cried, “Wolf!”?) If we assume that Lotus perceives her world the same way we do, we simply look around and see if we can locate anything we consider frightening and respond accordingly. However if we accept that Lotus can hear and smell things and detect movement beyond human perception, then we can’t be so sure. Some owners may take a “Better safe than sorry” approach and always respond to the fearful animal as if a legitimate threat existed, even though this can make a timid animal feel even more insecure. Others distract the animal with a round of confidence-building commands that not only decrease the number of things the dog considers a threat, but also gently communicate that using fear to gain attention won’t work.

Recognizing that animals can and do experience emotions most surely adds a new dimension to the human-canine bond. But whether that dimension enhances or undermines the relationship depends on our knowledge of our dogs and their unique needs.