Trainers Worry About False Claims That Dogs Lack Emotions
Confusing statements about the emotional lives of dogs ignore scientific facts.
Posted October 12, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Dogs don't lack real emotions.
"We like to see ourselves as special, but whatever the difference between humans and animals may be, it is unlikely to be found in the emotional domain." —Frans de Waal
Dogs and numerous other nonhuman animals (animals) are sentient, conscious, and emotional beings. An extensive comparative database shows this unquestionably to be a bona fide scientific fact.1 Researchers and others who are interested in animal emotions fully realize that "their" emotions aren't necessarily identical to our own, nor are they the same across species. However, this doesn't mean they are emotionless.
For example, I've argued that there's chimpanzee joy, dog joy, and human joy, and elephant grief, gorilla grief, and magpie grief, and even among members of the same species (conspecifics), these feelings and how they're expressed may vary. However, there's little to no doubt about what the individuals are feeling when their behavior and the context in which it's observed are detailed. (See "'Stripping Animals of Emotions is 'Anti-Scientific & Dumb.'")
During the past few months, I've received a number of emails from dog trainers who are deeply concerned about the large—and some claim a growing—number of dog trainers who are subscribing or resubscribing to misleading, and frankly absurd and confused claims, such as we don't know if dogs really experience emotions and they're only acting "as if" they feel something. Some also question if dogs really display different personalities. This turn toward reductionism and ignoring the results of detailed research not only is anti-scientific, but also can be dangerous for the animals involved.
All in all, the real question at hand is why have emotions evolved, not if they have evolved. Emotions are gifts from our ancestors and serve as "social glue." It's because of shared emotions that humans and dogs form close and enduring social bonds.
Two emails I received are worth including here (with the authors' permission). The first, from an Associate Professor of ethology who's interested in animal learning, emotion, behavior, and welfare and who also teaches humans how to have happy animals who thrive with humans, reads:
"Lately, I've been disconcerted with Lisa Barrett's [author of How Emotions Are Made] theory implying emotions as being constructed, and more or less invalidating decades of work on core emotions... her theory is getting a lot of support from the often very behaviouristic animal training community, and many of them are now claiming that [Jaak] Panksepp's core emotions concept is irrelevant."
The second more detailed note from a well-known dog trainer, asks:
"In speaking about animal emotions, intelligence, personalities, umwelt, etc. how do you respond to the academic psychologists who subscribe so fully to the ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] model of methodological behaviorism which insists that descriptive or anecdotal terms never be used in speaking about animals? Susan Friedman, for instance, insists that terms like "protective", "pushy", "playful", "reserved", "grumpy", "extroverted", "curious" etc. should never be used when speaking about animals, with these being examples of improper verbiage...It is a powerful force in the dog training world right now that's moving away from an integrated understanding that sees the whole phenotype of the animal and considers both proximate and ultimate explanations for behavior."
A complete list of words that according to Dr. Friedman don't "describe behavior in a functional way" can be seen here. Included are "aggressive," "dominate," "dominating," "happy," "intentionally," "jealousy," "shy," "territorial," and "upset." I am at a total loss as to the reasoning behind these words supposedly being functionless, many of which are well-entrenched in ethological and neuroethological/neuroimaging literature. (See, for example, "Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us," "What It's Like to Be a Dog," and references therein.) So, too, are many other dog experts.
Other emails also expressed similar concerns. Mara wrote, "How in the world can anyone deny that dogs are emotional animals? Don't they read the research?" Frankly, I was astounded to receive these messages, which reflect a U-turn toward the Dark Ages despite what we now know, and have known for a long time, about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals.
Dog trainers and others should worry about false, confused, and contradictory claims that dogs are emotionless beings.
"Okay, so chimps and other primates don't appear to have emotion concepts or social reality. How about dogs like Rowdy...Dogs, like other mammals, feel affect...One way they appear to express affect is by wagging their tails...Animals are emotional creatures, at least as far as human perceivers are concerned. This is part of the social reality we create...Non-human animals feel affect, but the reality of their emotion is, for the moment, only within ourselves." —Lisa Barrett, How Emotions Are Made, Pp. 263ff
My interest was piqued by the above and other emails so, as I read her book, I focussed on what Dr. Barrett had to say about dogs and other animals (pages 263-277, from which the above quote was assembled) and elsewhere. I found some interesting yet very confusing and contradictory material.
One review of her book, called "Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, reviewed: Provocative theory falls flat," is by neuroscientist Dr. Jay Hosking. I focused on what he wrote about Dr. Barrett's view of dogs:
"Our dogs, Barrett argues, have all the hallmarks of affect, with their wagging tails or bared teeth or yips when injured, but are most likely incapable of emotion because they don't have language. They demonstrate a variety of behaviors and internal states that appear consistent and appropriate to emotion, but theirs is a lesser form relegated to affect. This, of course, raises the question: then what exactly does Barrett mean when she says 'emotion,' if not the affect or relevant behaviors and physiological states?" (my emphasis)
I thought the argument that language is a necessary correlate of emotions had long been put to sleep. A number of people who know the literature better than I do tell me people don't take it seriously any longer, but some still do.2 Dr. Hosking also writes a bit about this.
The important point is that dogs and other animals have their own sorts of languages, and even if they're not identical or similar to the vast array of known human languages, these nonhumans still experience deep and rich emotions. I also have no idea what is meant by the phrase, "but theirs is a lesser form relegated to affect." I wondered, lesser than what, and I assume Dr. Barrett means lesser than our own. However, other animals' emotions are as important to them as ours are to us, so this sort of comparison is vacuous (for more discussion, click here). It reeks of human exceptionalism absent any valid support.
Dr. Hosking's review of how Dr. Barrett views nonhumans is right on the mark, as shown by the lines from her book with which I begin this section. She uses the word appear throughout her discussion of dogs and other animals to make the point that they're really emotionless and merely behave as if they're feeling certain emotions. Nonetheless, she is incorrect: nonhuman emotions are not only in the eyes, ears, or noses of the beholders, in this case, humans. The nonhumans themselves are sentient, feeling beings, and other nonhumans read them well.
I also found an interview called "The New Science of Emotions with Lisa Feldman Barrett" and likewise focused on some of the material on dogs. I quote her own words here for reasons of accuracy. Her response to interviewer Roger Dooley's question about dogs reads: "Some aspects of their experiences are very similar to ours. They feel pleasure. They feel pain. They can get really worked up. They can get really calm. This is true of almost all of the animal kingdom."
She then goes to say, "You have machinery in your brain that allows you to construct the experience of emotion and also construct a perception of someone else being emotional, including your dog. What this means is that from your perceptive, your dog may be sad, but from your dog's perceptive, your dog may be just feeling unpleasant or your dog may be feeling worked up or your dog may be feeling pleasant."3
I don't understand this. By paying close attention to the context in which you're observing a dog, it's not all that difficult to understand what they're feeling. Yes, we can occasionally be wrong, but we also can be wrong with other humans, as Roger Dooley and many others also note.
Suggesting that we should pretend that dogs are emotional beings demeans them.
At the end of the interview, Dr. Barrett states: "The other thing that I point out in the book is that even if there's a lot of evidence that dogs don't feel the same emotions as humans, that being said, I think it's really useful for us to see them as having those emotions. It actually helps us be more loving and more caring and more responsible for our pets when we perceive human emotion in those animals. There's a reason why we do it even if it's not exactly what you would call accurate from a scientific standpoint." Remember, she also claims, "Some aspects of their experiences are very similar to ours. They feel pleasure. They feel pain. They can get really worked up. They can get really calm."
Regardless of Dr. Barrett contradicting herself and suggesting that it's OK to pretend that dogs are emotional beings, attributing rich and deep emotions to dogs is highly accurate, given what we know. Her views are inconsistent and confusing.
Along these lines, Leah, via email, notes, "I really don't understand what she's trying to do other than to relegate dogs to being lesser animals than we are, even if she contradicts herself." Dr. Barrett's claim, "there's a lot of evidence that dogs don't feel the same emotions as humans," isn't supported by research, and she seems to recognize this from time to time.
The gratuitous attribution of emotions to dogs also is very disturbing. I simply can't understand why Dr. Barrett, who tries to stick to facts about what's known about human emotions, takes this unscientific turn. It's a cheap "feel-good" shot, and it makes it seem like those who truly care about dogs have no foundation on which to base their feelings when, in fact, there are ample data to show that dogs and humans share a number of different emotions. Although they might not be identical, Dr. Barrett agrees they are "very similar."
And, research has shown they are important—some might say the shared feelings are an essential foundation—for developing and maintaining long-term and strong social bonds. Research also has demonstrated emotional contagion between humans and dogs. (See "Emotional Contagion From the Heart Between Humans and Dogs" and "Dogs Mirror Our Stress and We Know More About How and Why.")
Let sleeping (and misleading) dogmas lie: Trainers, dog guardians, and anyone who's interested in dogs beware.
Whether or not Dr. Barrett makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of human emotions remains to be seen. I found her book to offer some interesting ideas, but I'm not in a position to pass judgment in this arena. However, my suggestion is trainers and anyone who's interested in dogs beware because the material on dogs is incorrect, confusing, inconsistent, and vague. We should let sleeping (and misleading) dogmas lie. These myths often become widespread memes that can be harmful to dogs and their humans. It's also important to keep in mind that anyone can call themselves a "dog trainer" because the industry is totally unregulated.
Science tells us the nay-sayers are wrong. It's important to keep putting out what we actually know about the emotional lives of dogs and appreciate them for who they truly are—sentient, conscious, and feeling individuals—each and every one of them. I'm incredulous anyone could say dogs can't be "protective," "pushy," "playful," "reserved," "grumpy," "extroverted," and "curious." I'm glad I'm not their dog. It's well-known that dogs display a wide range of personalities.
Stay tuned for further discussions about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals. Dog trainers and anyone who lives with a dog or who is interested in the behavior of our canine companions should go to the dogs to learn more about what they want and need and who they are. And, of course, when they do, they'll discover or confirm the well-known fact that dogs experience rich and deep emotions and care about what happens to them and to other individuals. This surely will be a win-win for all, and hopefully put to rest, once and for all, misleading and damaging myths about the supposedly impoverished emotional lives of dogs.
2. For more information on the relationship between language and emotion, click here.
3. They both very briefly discuss dominance in dogs, but it's not based on readily available data. Click here for more on dominance in dogs.
Bekoff, Marc. The Rich and Deep Emotional Lives of Dogs in 226 Seconds.
_____. Why Dogs Matter.
_____. Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures. BioScience, 50, 861-870, 2000.
_____. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California. 2019.