Animal Emotions

Do animals think and feel?

Dogs In the News: Emotions, Compassion, and the Iditarod

Read new information about the emotional lives of our best friends

We all know dogs are pretty good at reading us (see also) but how well do we read them? A recent study by Tina Bloom and Harry Friedman of Walden University in Florida published in the journal Behavioural Processes called "Classifying dogs’ (Canis familiaris) facial expressions from photographs" showed 50 people images of a five-year-old Belgian shepherd police dog named Mal as he displayed various emotions (for discussions of this research please click here and here). The volunteers who partook in this study to see how well they read Mal's emotions were split into two groups according to their experience with dogs. Pictures of this most handsome dog displaying different emotions can be seen in the article in the U. K. Daily Mail.

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Different emotions were elicited by surprising Mal with a jack-in-the-box causing Mal to wrinkle the top of his head into a frown, praising him that resulted in erect ears, reprimanding him that caused him to flatten his ears with downcast eyes, disgusting him that also caused his ears to flatten, and inducing fear and anger causing Mal's ears to prick up and show the whites of the eyes.

How good are we really at reading dogs?

The results of this very interesting study are as follows: "Happiness was by far the easiest emotion to recognise with 88 per cent of the volunteers correctly identifying it. Anger was identified by 70 per cent of participants. About 45 per cent of volunteers spotted when Mal was frightened, while 37 per cent could identify the relatively subtle emotion of sadness. The canine expressions that were hardest for humans to identify were surprise and disgust. ...  those [people] with minimal experience of dogs were better at identifying negative emotions."

Concerning the results of this study, Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today, notes, ''I am not at all surprised science has finally accepted what we knew all along – dog and owner communicate perfectly well without words."

I'm not so sure I agree that we "communicate perfectly well without words." We are pretty good at it but when one considers the results of this study for the ability to read anger, fright, and sadness there was considerable room for error as there was for surprise and disgust. Of course, only one dog with a unique history of contact with humans was studied and only 50 humans partook in this project so perhaps future research will support that we are actually better at reading what dogs are feeling. 

What about doggie guilt?

The Daily Mail essay begins, "We all know that guilty look on the dog’s face when he swipes a sausage from the kitchen work top. But it seems that’s not the only emotion we can recognise in our canine friends." This is slightly misleading. Actually, we're not all that good at reading guilt. Consider the results of Dr. Alexandra Horowitz's research on reading canine guilt that showed we're not very good at knowing when dogs are feeling guilty for doing something they weren't supposed to do. Once again we need more data concerning just how good we are at reading guilt but I want to emphasize once again that Dr. Horowitz's research does not show that dogs do not feel guilt (for more on this and on the emotional lives of dogs please see). 

Rescued Fozzie dog shares food with scrawny and smelly Lars, a hungry stray

Here's a story, written by Kirsten Stade of Peaceful Dog blog, that'll warm your heart. On a romp through his neighborhood, Kirsten's foster dog, a mastiff-pit-something-mix named Fozzie Bear, met and befriended a stray white German shepherd Kirsten named Lars. After Fozzie disappeared from her yard Kirsten went out to find him. She writes, "I caught up to Fozzie in a neighbor’s backyard. Flattened into a playful crouch, grinning broadly, his tongue extending nearly to the ground, he lay not 5 feet from a tall, scrawny, off-white dog who gave off a potent smell and was also smiling and panting up a storm. Not knowing where this dog came from, I thought maybe he would follow me home so I could get a better look at him. Once I leashed up Fozzie, sure enough, the white dog followed along behind us and even came right into my front yard." It seemed as if Fozzie felt compassion for Lars and they went on to become the best of friends. 

What I love about this story is not only the passion with which Kirsten writes about Fozzie and Lars but also how she notes, "Lars would need an adopter of unusual sensitivity and experience, and much as I wanted to place him, I was not going to place him in a home that might let him down the way he’d been let down before."

This is a great "up" story when you need a boost.

The Iditarod and the death of Dorado, a "dropped dog"

Fellow Psychology Today writer and good friend Mark Derr recently posted an essay called "Iditarod Dog Death Raises Howls of Protest: Husky dropped from the race across Alaska suffocates in a snow drift". During the last running of this event, a four-year old dog named Dorado died after he was left behind and tethered by a rookie musher. Dorado suffocated in a snow drift because weather precluded rescuers from getting to him (see also). Dogs left behind for a variety of reasons are called "dropped dogs". 

Mark has watched the Iditarod in person, whereas I have not. One can forever debate the pros and cons of the Iditarod, but Dorado's death made me think about the fate of dropped dogs and how much pain and suffering they might endure while waiting to be picked up. And, shouldn't it be required that someone remain with them until they are rescued? 

One part of his essay caught my eye. Mark notes, "Dogs have died during the race—approximately 140 according to PETA’s tally, a small percentage of those who have competed since the first Iditarod in 1973. The causes have ranged from moose attack to accidents to a variety of medical ailments." No dogs competing in the Iditarod are known to have died from 2009-2012. (A comment posted in response to my essay also is concerned with the treatment of dogs during training for the race and their fate after they've raced.)

My own take is that this is 140 too many deaths and that something has to be done to prevent pain, suffering, and death in the future if the race is to continue. And Dorado did not have to die. The good record from 2009-2012 is encouraging but Dorado's death breaks my heart as it does everyone else's including his human companion's. Indeed, they have asked for changes to be made in the Iditarod's protocol and the Iditarod Trail Committee has already recently announced that changes will be made including the "construction of dog shelters at two major checkpoints, and more frequent checks on the animals."

While no dogs are known to have died from 2009-2012, it's extremely important to consider how much dogs suffer even if they don't die. For some, death might be a blessing. 

The teaser image of Mal 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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