Canine emotions

Dogs experiencing emotions…

When your dog looks at you with those big eyes, is he saying “I love you?” Well, scientific research hasn’t been able to tell us much about the source of emotions through different applications of the brain, even though we all know that the guy who cuts you off in traffic elicits a different response from you than coming home to your significant other who’s wearing that “special something”.

Trying to determine what goes through your pup’s mind as he looks at you is even more difficult. However, we want to think that our pets truly feel love and affection towards us. Or we want to think that they do feel guilty about that little piddle spot you just found on the carpet, or that they feel fancy (or embarrassed) when you dress them up in their doggy sweaters.

So how do you tell? Is it body language? In their eyes? Do they react differently to different emotional stimuli, like getting a treat vs. being disciplined? Do they feel love, joy, fear, shame, hope? The animal psychologists and behaviorists are still trying to answer that question, but here’s what we can look at so far.

Let’s look at revenge. Sometime, if we want to get back at a person who we feel has wronged us, we think revenge. It’s a conscious decision that a human can make to come up with a type of revenge, and enact it. Or even just thinking it through without actually going through with it can make us feel better in our minds. Dogs don’t necessarily work that way. Your dog doesn’t have the capacity to choose to chew up your slippers because you swatted him with that rolled-up newspaper for pooing on the floor. He’s not going to scratch up the wall in the bedroom, because you locked him in there while you and your family were enjoying a succulent roast beef dinner. That ability requires something called “theory of mind,” and dogs just don’t have it.

A dog can only see the world from his dog perspective, and not from a human’s. That’s why they do best when they’re controlled and treated based on the thought process of a canine mind, and not the owner’s mind. He doesn’t understand that you took away a treat he found under the couch, because you were just about to give him breakfast. He’s not going to go seek out your favorite shoes and make them his personal chew toy in response. If he does, more than likely it’s because he’s excited, or frustrated, about something else entirely or maybe there is a break in his normal routine, or even strange visitors in the house for the first time.

If that helps you understand your dog’s thought process, than you can go about altering his thoughts to create a mood that is in contrast with the mood that causes him to misbehave. It’s a concept called the principle of competing motivations which states that a dog cannot feel two opposing emotions at the same time!

Your dog is more similar to you in their emotions than in their mentality. Some of their emotional reactions are so much like ours that we tend to humanise them. A dog’s emotions are visibly expressed in his eyes and face, his ear and tail movements, his posture, and general behavior. Sometimes they are vocally expressed as well. Your dog can feel and express the same emotions as we do: love, hate, joy, sorrow, grief, anxiety, jealousy, remorse, anger, fear, and even more subtle ones such as distrust and resignation.

Pet dogs have an endearing tendency to imitate their owner’s emotional reactions, which may not weigh much in an argument, but it certainly offers much in moral support. They are no more individual in expressing their emotions than we are. Dogs approach and seek contact with objects and beings that inspire friendly feelings, and avoid or shy away from those they fear. Often a dog will pretend not to see a person or animal he dislikes. A crouching position and a watchful eye mean that he has not yet made up his mind to trust or distrust.

Some facial expressions are much like ours. Worried frowns, angry glares, adoring gazes, suspicious squints, questioning looks, seductive glances, humor, and even genuine smiles. A smile, accompanied by half-closed eyes and ears held low signifies intense pleasure. Dogs express their feelings through body language more so than facial expressions. A wagging tail and friendly grin are invitations to approach and perhaps make friends, while a snarl, a fixed stare, stiff, straight legs and tail are warnings to keep your distance. The question of distance is important to the dog because of territorial concerns and of survival instincts.

Dogs usually give voice to the emotions, and their meanings are generally clear. A happy dog gurgles or squeals with pleasure. A gentle whine says “please”, and snarling is definitely hostile. Dogs yelp from pain or fear, whine from frustration or pain, and sigh for the same reasons we do. Puppy cries are easiest to interpret, they scream when they are too hot, whimper when cold, and protest loudly when hungry. Barking is usually done to attract attention or to work excess energy if the dog is constrained such as in a kennel. Dogs exchange information among themselves less by voice than by a wide range of facial expressions, body postures and gestures.

An owner who takes the trouble to observe his dog and pay him the courtesy of listening to him, can establish a simple two-way communications system with his pet. Canine messages are usually very elementary, as he asks much less of us than we do of him. “I’m hungry”, “I’m thirsty, “I need to go out”, or “Come with me”, are among the messages he manages to convey very well, considering his limited means. His most eloquent utterance is perhaps the emotional gurgle or barks that mean to say, “It’s about time you came home, I’ve missed you!”

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