Aerosmith knew they were onto a winner when they released Sweet Emotion. It’s one of those songs that remind me of my time running sled dogs in Scandinavia and is probably quite fitting. Emotions are a topic of much research in dogs – as they have been for a while. If you’ve ever wondered what emotions your dog is capable of feeling, hopefully this article will provide some clarity.
Emotions vs feelings.
Emotions and feelings are inherently different and it’s important to draw the distinction early. The term ’emotions’, in behavioural science, refers to 7 core circuits in the brain that drive behavioural responses. These are hardwired and form the basis of much of the dog’s behaviour – whether the behaviour is rationally performed or instinctive.
Feelings require a thought process behind them. Jealousy is a good example, as is resentment. Both of these feelings require a conscious thought process from the dog to be experienced.
Experiencing emotions and feelings is separate from sensory experiences such as pain. These all work together to give the dog the information it needs to stay alive.
The core emotional circuits that drive behaviour are: SEEKING, CARE, LUST, FEAR, PLAY, RAGE, GRIEF/PANIC. We capitalise the terms to identify these circuits as ones which can be electrically stimulated in the brain. If we stimulate the RAGE circuit, for example, the subject would display aggressive behaviour as a result. If we stimulated the PLAY circuit, they’d show joyful play behaviours.
These circuits were the focus of the work of Jaak Panksepp’s and his research has been immensely beneficial to developing behavioural science.
We also have science that shows that dogs can experience secondary emotions, aka, feelings. So far, we can reliably say that dogs do experience frustration and jealousy. Jealousy is a complex behaviour and can be confused with resource guarding. The key difference is that resource guarding is driven by the appearance of a perceived competitor to a resource. Jealousy arises only where a dog’s owner/guardian interacts, or the dog thinks their owner is interacting, with another dog or person.
We do think that animals can experience other feelings; however, we cannot prove it and it is wrong to say that they can without evidence to back it up. We call this anthropomorphism.
Why is this a problem? Anthropomorphism means that we are essentially failing to treat the dog like a dog. How many times have you heard someone say their dog “knew what it did wrong”? The dog didn’t know. Good and bad are human, moral, constructs which we, as a race, cannot agree a universal definition of. For example, some humans think taking drugs or drinking and driving is ok, others disagree. How can we expect dogs to understand good and bad if we can’t agree the concept ourselves?
What happens when someone sees their dog “acting remorsefully” is actually just the dog anticipating something unpleasant happening at that time. Dogs know when we’re angry because they detect the changes in our hormones and our facial expressions and body language.
Your average dog has the same emotional and intellectual capacity as your average 3-year-old human child. If we over-assign capabilities to children, we set them up to fail. The same is true of our relationship with dogs – or any other animal we keep as a pet.
Emotions, your dog and their behaviour.
The core emotional circuits drive your dog’s desire for certain things. Some are obvious whilst others are less so. PLAY, for example, drives social play behaviour – a happy experience and important to puppies’ development. LUST drives mating behaviour. We see CARE more in females than males but is the circuit responsible for a mother going to a crying puppy etc.
In my behavioural work, the circuits that I see most commonly are FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF and SEEKING. RAGE is less common but I have seen it. Let’s look at these four circuits in a bit more detail.
RAGE is fairly self-explanatory – it drives the dog’s anger-based responses. We see this circuit involved in behaviours such as some fights over food or territorial aggression. Fights over food are most commonly cases of resource guarding; however, the objective for the behaviour is the same – distance creation and possession.
The SEEKING circuit is activated when the dog wants something. This is more than a casual interest – it’s the dog that pulls on the lead, for example, to follow a scent left by a deer or a squirrel. In snow dogs, it’s also the circuit that causes the ‘husky bang’ before we set off on a sled team. It’s that strong desire to run.
I have a particular interest in cases of ‘aggression’ and I see this circuit driving behaviours in more of my clients (yes, I mean the dogs are my clients) than anything else. People are too quick to label dogs as ‘aggressive’ when, actually, they’re anxious, nervous or fearful and limited in their communication tools. Consequently, we should properly define these dogs as ‘reactive’ because that is what they are – reacting to a situation beyond their control.
You will see your dog responding to the FEAR circuit when it tries to avoid something it finds unpleasant or you see its tail tuck between its legs. These are two of the most obvious signs.
We see this circuit involved with panicking behaviours such as separation anxiety. We know that the primary cause of separation anxiety for many dogs is the moment their owner goes to leave the house. This leads to activation of the FEAR circuit and a fight/flight response which drives the dog to try and escape the house.
Hopefully this has shed some light on the extent, and limits, of what we know that your dog can feel. We share these emotional circuits with dogs – as do many other species too. I find this is a really interesting topic and I think that animals are capable of feeling more than we realise. Hopefully we’ll have more science in this area soon and we can share even more with our dogs – nothing beats that.