Animal Emotions

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"My Dog Feels My Pain": Compelling Stories and the Science

There's much more to our close relationship with our best friends than we know

Dogs are amazing beings. A recent discussion on HuffPost Live about how dogs can sense human pain and stress and help to alleviate them raises many fascinating questions about our close relationship with animals many people call family members and their best friends. In this discussion called "My dog feels my pain" you can listen to people telling compelling personal stories about how dogs have helped them along either by detecting various diseases or by providing substantial relief from chronic pain and stress. You'll also meet Ricochet, a surfing dog surfing in tandem with a quadriplegic youngster named Patrick Iverson, and learn about the science behind the very close reciprocal relationship that has formed between this highly social and compassionate canid and us. (For more on the domestication of dogs please see my review of Mark Derr's book How the Dog Became the Dog.)

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I was especially intrigued to listen to Dr. Dawn Marcus, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a diplomate of the American Board of Neurology and Psychiatry, and author of Fit As Fido: Follow Your Dog to Better Health, discuss how dogs are incredibly effective in reducing chronic pain in many of her patients. I talked about my dog Jethro who was especially keen about picking out a person in a group who was "having a bad day" and choosing to sit near them and often lean into them and allow to pet him. Dr. Marcus also related similar stories of dogs knowing who was most in need of stress or pain relief in a waiting room and going to them to provide comfort.

How and why dogs are able to know who's the most stressed person in a group remains a mystery. I offered that perhaps highly stressed people are giving off a unique scent (a pheromone) that also stresses the dog, and when the dog goes over to the stressed person both the dog and person experience reduced stress. So, it may be that it's a win-win situation for both. Dogs and humans are mammals who share similar structures in the limbic system that are important in experiencing various emotions. Perhaps that's part of the explanation for Dr. Marcus's and my observations. 

I learned a lot from the other participants and think you will too. Clearly, there are numerous dissertations and a wide assortment of projects just waiting to be done in this incredibly fascinating area, and I look forward to seeing what we learn as this research is conducted. 

The teaser image of Ricochet surfing in tandem with Patrick Iverson can be seen here

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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