When I started training dogs thirty years ago behaviourists were strictly theorists (many still are) and we trainers didn’t bother with them. One of the reasons was that strict behaviourists only dealt with observable behaviour – the animal was treated as a “black box” where stimuli were input and the resulting change in behaviour, the output, was measured. There was no room for anthropomorphism, and things that weren’t quantifiable, like emotions, weren’t considered worthy of study.
Trainers, on the other hand, interacted with our dogs and interpreted what we did and how it affected them in terms we understood, which was rampantly anthropomorphic, because that is all we knew. There are many trainers who still operate in this way; interpreting dog behaviour based on their own human template.
Trainers dealt in emotions (I lost count of the times that as a young dog handler I was told to get a grip because my dog was, “taking the p*** out of” me) and behaviourists dealt in observable facts, because that is the scientific approach. Emotions can’t be proved in animals, so they don’t exist, went the logic.
As a dog trainer studying behaviour and ethology thirty years ago I was hugely confused by this apparent denial of the emotional aspect of our pets, because (anthropomorphically) I could see dogs expressing emotions all the time.
But science (unlike many dog trainers) moves on. Scientific “facts” are only the best interpretation of the available evidence, and evidence often changes with further investigation. The scientific approach to dog training has moved on hugely in the last few years; dogs are more studied now than they have ever been.
There has been a huge swing towards the acceptance of emotions in non-human species, to the extent that some claims are being made that dogs have feelings “just like ours”. Now, whilst I am more than happy that science has eventually agreed with us trainers, we have to be careful that we don’t overstep the mark and, in doing so, demean our canine companions.
Scientific enquiry focussing on hormones such as oxytocin, released by humans when we feel loving and loved, finds that dogs too wallow in it when they are stroked and petted, suggesting they also feel loving and loved.
Recent MRI studies by Gregory Burns, professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University, published in the NY Times, show that the caudate nucleus, a part of the brain that is activated when humans are experiencing positive emotions, is also activated in dogs when they are shown things they enjoy. This was reported under the headline of “Dogs Are People, Too” and Prof Burns projected that this level of emotional involvement means that, “Dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child”.
What arrogance; what disregard for ethology. Comparing an adult dog to a human child is akin to comparing a goldfish to a bird’s egg; one is a species evolved to fit into their own environment and the other is incomplete developmental stage of a different species. It is nonsense.
Although I am overjoyed at anything that improves the welfare of domestic dogs, spurious comparisons do none of us – owner, trainer or scientist – any favours.
Dogs are dogs, and should be understood as such. Dogs see light, the same as we do; but dogs do not see light the same as we do. Dogs hear sound waves, the same as we do; but dogs do not hear sound waves the same as we do. Why should we dispute that dogs experience emotions, the same as we do, but that dogs do not necessarily experience emotions the same as we do? Why would they? They are dogs; they need to experience dog emotions!
Dogs are adapted to see and hear in a way that suits dogs. The only sensible conclusion is that dogs’ emotions are adapted in a way that suits dogs too (and maybe that they are different in different breeds – but that may be a projection too far). Of course there is likely to be some overlap with humans, the same as in sight and sound, but the same? Only we arrogant humans could assume that our emotions are the benchmark and therefore dogs’ must be an imitation of ours – and a poor “child-like” one at that!
Of course dogs have emotions, but they are dog emotions, not human ones. I do not doubt that they feel them with equal vigour, and strongly suspect that some dog-emotions are felt at a far greater intensity than many human ones. The biggest clue is that emotions are the driving forces behind behaviour. The more intense the emotion, the more a dog feels the need to act, the more effort they will make to achieve the goal.
Would you be upset enough to bite your partner if she didn’t allow you to chase a rabbit? (Sorry, rhetorical question – I hope the answer is, “No”). Would you scream for hours every single day if he left you home alone at 8.30am, but always returned for lunch? (Still hoping the answer’s “No”). When was the last time you were so scared you went to the toilet on your living room carpet? (Don’t require an answer for that one, thank you.)
Do dogs love us? In humans, love makes you want to be close to someone, and dogs will go to great lengths to stay with their owners, and show considerable distress when parted from them. On that evidence, dogs love us. But is it the same as human love? Why should it be? What is more important is how strongly the emotion, whether we call it “love” or “a form of parental attachment”, is felt, and the consequences for the dog. We don’t need an MRI scan for that, just our own observations.
Is it not more important that we acknowledge that dogs feel emotions very strongly, but in a dog, not human, way? Let’s understand dogs as dogs, not as diminished versions of humans. Let’s not demean our dogs by pretending they feel “almost like we do”.