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Can Dogs Sense Our Emotions?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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All dog owners like to think that their pet can sense their mood and emotions. Although researchers now accept that dogs, and other non-human animals, can experience primary emotions such as anxiety, fear, and anger, they still do not accept that "animals" have a sense of self and are capable of sophisticated secondary emotions. Instead, the scientists believe that non-human animals are incapable of understanding the feelings of others around them. Without a sense of self, they say, secondary emotions, like jealousy (he's enjoying that ... but I would enjoy more) or empathy (what a terrible situation that person/other dog is in) are impossible.

This is a complicated argument, and we don't have to review the details here, but suffice to say, not everyone agrees with the scientists. As sympathetic as I am to the difficulties of scientifically proving animal self-awareness and secondary emotions, I prefer to give animals the benefit of the doubt. I assume that higher animals, like dogs, are sensitive creatures with feelings and emotions that can and do project beyond the blatantly obvious.

Examples of Dogs Sensing our Emotions

  • Almost every dog owner has found out that when they are really sad, their dog acts differently toward them. A dog may approach its disturbed owner with a concerned look and, quite out of character, hunker down next to them as if to provide some emotional support. It is as if they are saying, I know there's something wrong, I don't know what it is but I'm here for you, anyway. Are there other explanations? Of course, there are, but none make as much sense. You could argue that the dog observes your posture and appearance as submissive and, almost reflexively, approaches to investigate or respond to the new situation. Perhaps, seeing you in a submissive posture, the dog feels it has to grovel to remain below you in rank. Yeah, right.

  • Fear-aggressive dogs are more often aggressive to people who fear them. They garner from a person's demeanor that the person is uncomfortable around them and capitalize on their perceived weakness. Perhaps it is because the person has a pained expression; perhaps it is because the person is a little tenuous; or perhaps the dog reads fear in the person's eyes. Whatever is the mechanism, under-confident dogs "know" when a person is afraid of them and will move forward on them, perhaps to attack.

  • Top trainer William (Bill) Campbell is famous for his "jolly routine" approach to treating fear in dogs. Most people think that this involves being jolly with your dog, but actually that's not the case. The real "jolly routine" implies that all the people in the household should behave in a happy, jolly manner toward each other. The dog, sensing their level of relaxation, figures out that nothing bad is going to happen and relaxes himself. The fact that the technique works is testimony to the fact that dogs are influenced by our emotions and behavior. When we're "up," they're "up" (and vice versa).

  • Many dogs slink away and hide or sulk when their human "parents" argue. A major league fight between adults really seems to take its toll on some dogs. It appears from the dog's behavior that he understands discord and does not want to be around it. Of course, it can be argued that raised voices might drive the dog away but I have heard of dogs that sulk even when their owners purposely keep their voices low. It's almost as if you can't hide anything from a dog.

  • If an owner comes home and finds their home trashed by their dog, the guilty party will often be found hiding, perhaps with a hangdog look. Owners believe their dog is feeling guilty about what he has done. If you accept the guilt explanation, you must also accept that the dog is able to project about your feelings of disappointment or anger. Hard line behaviorists (naturally) disagree with this interpretation, preferring to believe that the dog simply associates his owner, the damage, and his own presence with past punishment and acts submissively. This is all fair and well, but I know dogs that have never been punished and who still act in this way. Sure, their owners may have been disappointed and disheartened by the damage, but that's about it. The dogs must have "read" their owner's disappointment from their expression, because they sure weren't responding to any form of punishment.

  • Some naughty dogs do not appreciate their owners hugging or kissing each other. They seem to know that the people concerned are experiencing some pleasure and they want to be part of it. So, they try to leverage themselves into the situation by shoving, pushing, pawing, and jumping. This behavior sure looks like jealousy but many mainstream behaviorists disagree, preferring explanations like possessiveness or conflict-induced behavior, because dogs (surely?) cannot understand how we feel.

    Conclusion

    Examples of dogs seemingly picking up on our emotions are endless but still the scientific proof is not there. I suppose it would be very difficult for some folks to accept that dogs, or any animals, might have minds that work in ways similar to our own. I suppose the believers still have a long way to go to convince the skeptics.

    The case against animals being able to pick up on our mood and mindset is based on lack of confirmatory evidence as opposed to conclusive evidence to the contrary. But the times they are a changin.' In one primate experiment, Harvard researchers trained a monkey to lower a basket of fruit down from a pulley in the ceiling. When the researchers stopped putting fruit in the basket, the monkey stopped lowering the basket. When another monkey was suspended in the basket and screamed blue murder, the trained monkey lowered him to the ground. The action appears to reflect empathy though the researchers are still working on other possible explanations.

    From an evolutionary point of view, it would be very strange if dogs did not have the ability to sense mood. It would also be an almost incredible fluke if self-consciousness suddenly occurred for the first and only time in the human animal. It doesn't make sense to have a pack animal like a dog unequipped to realize when he was getting into trouble with another dog or when his behavior was having the desired effect. If dogs feel what we feel, they should be happy when we're happy, sad when we're sad, and on the lookout (or hiding) when we're angry. All of the above do occur, on an almost daily basis, in our homes.

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