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Dog Emotions: Role and Influence

A dog was running loose heading where I was standing the other day. His owner was running after him. The dog seemed friendly and I tried to help by grabbing the dog’s harness. With an angry face the guardian said: “No worries, he’ll come back.” So I let go of the harness and the dog kept running ignoring its human's recall. This scenario might look like a recall issue for many, but to me, the dog's emotions were dictating his course of action.


Judging by the dog's unresponsiveness to its human's angry face or myself, I thought the chase was unfortunate. Was attending obedience school not sufficient?


To gain a better understanding of why dogs behave in certain ways, we must examine the role of emotions.


a beagle dog running loose

The role of emotions

Evolution has fine-tuned emotions to guide physical actions for survival.


Our body's defense system is designed to trigger short-term emotions that activate our body to energize and exaggerate behaviors associated with survival. For instance, when we feel anger, the body prepares for physical action by redirecting blood flow from the gut to the muscles. This results in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, body temperature, perspiration, etc.


Emotions also play a vital role in our lives, even more than we often realize. They help us form connections, make decisions, and motivate us toward action. Emotions provide valuable information by giving us insights into our surroundings, safety, perception of others.


The limbic system, a group of interconnected structures located deep within the brain, controls emotions and is responsible for behavioral and emotional responses. Key structures within it include the amygdala, hippocampus, limbic cortex, and hypothalamus.


Although dogs have smaller brains than humans, MRI studies have shown that dogs possess the same basic structures found in human brains. This suggests similarities in function as well.


Dog domestication

To understand the role of emotions in dogs, it is important to keep in perspective the role of domestication in the dogs we see today as it occurred in two waves: (1) the Neolithic Transition and (2) the Victorian era. Domestication, which happens through controlled breeding, changed dogs from hunters to scavengers to dogs with jobs, influencing their perception of the environment and emotional processing.


As people established permanent villages, dogs scavenged agricultural waste, obtaining a steady food supply while assisting with waste disposal, pest control, and protection from predators. This domestication process took place for thousands of years.


The majority of dog breeds that we are familiar with today were developed in the last 150 years, during what is known as the Victorian Explosion. Influenced by the ideas of Darwin, the Victorians became deeply involved in breeding for the specific traits of each breed. This period, which took place in Great Britain, saw a significant increase and diversification in dog breeding, leading to the creation of many of the well-known dog breeds we see today.



Along with dog breeding came physical changes to dog’s body, breeds that are sensitive to human expressions, to movement, and varying degrees of alertness; having a direct impact on emotion regulation. 


Dog emotions

The researchers at Durham University identified nine distinct emotional states – including anger, anxiety, curiosity, fear, friendliness, happiness, interest, joy, and surprise – that could be predicted based on wolves' facial movements with 71 percent accuracy. An important finding from this research is that dogs showed less accuracy, suggesting their lack of facial expressions during social interactions, compared to wolves. 


This presents a few scenarios: 

  • Due to the limitations in facial expressions caused by selective breeding, dogs compensate by vocalizing more than wolves to communicate their emotional state. 

  • Dogs' expressive communication could be misinterpreted (between positive and negative emotional states) to the point of confusing fearful or aggressive behaviors as friendliness.

  • Even though dog owners will insist they can tell what their dogs are thinking by the dog's face, a significant gap in reading the emotional state of dogs will still exist.


Dogs aren't wired to rationalize emotions

Have you ever tried to explain to your dog that “if she bites another human she’ll be quarantined and observed for some time to ensure she doesn't have rabies or other health issues? That authorities may also mandate measures like training, muzzling, or confinement to prevent future incidents.” If you have, what was your dog's response?




In the same way you cannot choose to feel happy waking up in the morning, dogs aren’t able to choose how they will feel in certain situations either. Heavy emotions trigger behaviors as a byproduct and not by choice.


Research indicates that, like children, dogs see the world more simply. They don't care about your clothes, the money you have, your looks, or what you do for work. So, it is reasonable to assume that your dog's ability to control his behavior is similar to that of a toddler.


Being unaware of this leads to slower learning in your dog and increases the likelihood of new problem behaviors. 


How can you help your dog?


Do these 3 things when training your dog

  • Dissect learning into small achievable steps - You may not want to hear this but some behaviors, like your dog walking next to you while on a leash, require many layers. Trying to teach too much in a few sessions can train the wrong emotions in your dog. For instance, teaching a dog to walk next to you on a leash involves various layers of conditioning, including getting the dog used to wear a collar and walking at your pace while dealing with distractions like scents, people, and dogs.

  • Short sessions - One way to determine a short session is by wrapping up your training with a 5-star trial of the skill you are teaching your dog. Did you get a great recall phase within two minutes of starting your training session?  End it right there…until the next session resumes.

  • Find the right dog's disposition - Their disposition will change depending on the space, time of the day, or the distracting elements around him. Some dogs will have a better disposition in the evenings or when they’re bring you their favorite toy. For example, if your dog has strong emotions at your front door, training a sit or down will be a perpetual failure; you may want to find an alternative spot for greetings.


Learn to observe fine details in your dog's behavior

Because dogs don't communicate in grammar or vocabulary contexts, messages that are shared across species tend to be more general, which could lead to missed or misinterpreted messages. 


While observing and seeing are not the same, developing your observation skills can be easy with practice. Start by actively paying attention to something you're curious about using your senses and evaluating what you are experiencing.


  • Tip #1 - Focus your attention on your dog's surroundings. This could be a quick 5-minute exercise in a specific location.

  • Tip #2 - Write down the smells and sounds you believe your dog registers at a specific moment. Keep in mind dogs can register sounds humans are not able to.


Reconsider where you stand on dominance

Your concept of “dominance” could be harming your dog’s welfare and should not be taken lightly by anyone who believes that animals have emotions.


In dominance theory, sadly applied to domestic dogs by many, aggression is often wrongly seen as an attempt at pack leadership. This overlooks the fact that aggressive behavior can stem from fear, anxiety, learning, social confusion, stress, pain, and other medical issues. 


Dominance is widely misunderstood by dog owners and trainers who use 'dominance reduction' to justify intimidation and the routine infliction of pain on dogs.


Citing Marc Bekoff Ph.D., just because dogs (and other animals) establish dominance in social situations, it doesn't mean we should use dominance when teaching them to live harmoniously with us.


More simply put, there is no such thing as an alpha dog. Any dog would be happy to play "the subordinate" role as long as its needs are being met by its human.


Avoid Flooding, as it can exponentially aggravate things

Although not the only existing technique, flooding is primarily used by “balanced trainers” to force a dog to face their biggest fears head-on with no chance of escaping them. As the name suggests, flooding involves exposing your dog to their greatest fear for a prolonged period until their brain and body eventually calm down. Because dogs can’t speak our language, they end up either shutting down or escalating into more aggressive measures.


Flooding has been known to bring immediate results and help a dog overcome many physical fears, such as machinery or walking on slippery surfaces. However, not every dog behavior consultant agrees with this method, especially if the dog has a phobia or complex trauma.


Not all dogs will react the same way under the same conditions, so this technique should be conducted under carefully controlled conditions. The trainer's objective should be to provide reassurance and prevent negative reactions. Some dog trainers with limited applied behavior skills take flooding as the only approach to intervening with dog behavior. Unfortunately, ethical considerations are often overlooked in the pursuit of quick results to satisfy social expectations first.


Even for basic obedience cases, I have seen dog guardians applying positive reinforcement techniques and principles poorly. Imagine using the intense techniques of flooding by a handler with poor skills; this could certainly backfire on the results, bringing long-term damage to the dog.


So, before hiring a behavior consultant to deal with your dog’s fears, do the following:

  • Ask the professional whether he/she is certified by an independent body. There is a difference between a certificate for attendance and certification in the use of the flooding technique.

  • Ask the professional about specific ways he/she can prevent negative reactions to this technique if it were to be applied to your dog as a unique case.

  • Ask the professional to choose an alternative approach to flooding that is more gradual and customized to the dog’s unique needs. If the trainer can’t customize their approach to meet your dog’s unique circumstances, he or she might be missing the whole picture and may not be worth hiring.


Conclusion

Ignoring the role and influence of emotions in a dog’s behavior may lead to justifying abusing our beloved companion. Sadly, dogs' survival instincts are often hindered by human emotions and control.


Understanding that dogs have emotions and feelings is crucial for the human-canine relationship in the fast-paced world we live in. We need to comprehend how dogs experience emotions and how it differs from our own experience as humans. Having a better understanding of this can help us provide better care and improve the well-being of our furry friends.


So, whether you're training your dog in protection, basic manners, or agility, you are also training their emotions. Plan for many short sessions to teach your dog a new skill and adjust according to your dog’s pace.



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