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Our Stress, Depression, Joy...Can Dogs Tell?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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After a hard day at work, you come home and find that your dog had quite a day himself – at your expense. He took a vacation from his potty training, made mincemeat of your shoes and slobbered all over that blanket your grandmother knitted for you.

You get angry and your dog gives you the classic hangdog, guilty look. He knows you're mad. So does that mean your dog can sense your emotions? The answer is not as clear. Your reaction made it clear you – the pack leader – are upset, and your dog is desperate to appease you (he probably doesn't know or care why you're angry).

But what if you're stressed or sad about something else, not involving your dog? He may sense something is wrong, but again, may not know why.

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. He may approach them with a concerned look and, quite out of character, hunker down next to them, presumably to provide some support. It is as if they are saying, "I know there's something wrong, I don't know what but I'm here for you anyway."
  • Fear-aggressive dogs are more often aggressive to people who fear them. By observation, they pick up from a person's demeanor that they are not comfortable and capitalize on their weakness. Perhaps it is because the person has a pained expression; perhaps because the person is a little tenuous; or perhaps the dog reads fear from the large diameter of the person's pupils. For whatever reason, 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 well known 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 so. The real jolly routine means that all the people in the house should behave in a happy, jolly manner with each other. The dog, sensing their apparent happiness, figures out that nothing bad is going to happen and relaxes. 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."

  • Many dogs slink away and hide or sulk when their human "parents" argue. A major fight between adults really seems to take its toll on some dogs who seem to know that there's trouble afoot. The appearance of the dog's behavior is as if he understands discord and does not want to be around it.

  • 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 and I tend to agree. If you accept the guilt explanation, you must also accept that the dog is projecting your feelings of disappointment or anger. Hard line behaviorists naturally would 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 would be all fair and well, but I know dogs that have never been punished 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 this disappointment because they sure weren't responding to punishment of any form.

  • 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 looks like jealousy but many mainstream behaviorists disagree, preferring explanations like possessiveness, which sounds very similar to jealousy to me, or conflict-induced behavior, because the dog "cannot predict what will happen next."

    Examples of dogs seemingly picking up on our emotions are endless but still the scientific proof is not there. The case against animals having the ability to glean our mood and mindset is based on lack of evidence to the effect that it happens rather than conclusive evidence to the contrary.
    From an evolutionary point of view, it would be very strange if dogs did not have the ability to sense mood and that it suddenly occurred for the first and only time in the human animal. It would also not make sense to have a pack animal like a dog not 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, then they would 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 appears to hold true.

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