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UNDERSTANDING DOG VS HUMAN EMOTIONS

  • Tuesday, January 05 2016 @ 02:41 am UTC
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The following article tries to explain the relationship between human and canine emotions Understanding and Attributing Human Traits and Emotions to Canines.
By Erik Hoffer

Do you think your dog really knows what you are saying with the exception of commands and taught behaviors? Do you think your dog experiences loneliness, rejection, satisfaction, hate, shame, rage, laughter or love? Do you also think he experiences jealousy, envy, anxiety, a senses of humor, fairness or forgiveness?

Well as you might expect, dogs are not humans but low and behold, they do have certain understandings that in many cases do equate to human like feelings and characteristics. Because they do not communicate in the same way we do, we are unaware of the impact of these ‘feelings’ on their lives, actions or relationships. No one can ever know if the response in a dog, elicited by an action in his daily life, was the direct result of a feeling, an emotion to some historical event in his past or to something else.

What I wish to explore is the midpoint between dog emotions and the way in which we read and react to those supposed feelings. So that we can better understand the intricate relationship we have with our dogs we must pay attention to what we see in our pet and how our pet responds to us. The visual responses the dog gives through tail wags, moon eyes, tail tucking, backing or cowering, smiling or play bows are all tell tail signs of your dogs reactions. Although we can try and interpret them, we may not ever know the source of the response. We need to pay attention to his unsolicited actions, positive or negative, and try and evaluate their meaning and origins.

Dogs, especially German Shepherds, are clever, intelligent way beyond what we give them credit for, and extremely perceptive and responsive to their environments and stimulus. No they are not educated in the way we are nor do they learn or communicate in the same way we do, but yes they are interpret things in a similar fashion and then, in their own way, project that response to us in a way we can then understand and interpret to achieve their desired result. Whining at the back door to go potty is a means by which the dog can communicate with us non verbally, yet we know the meaning and he gets the desired result. We need to learn how our dog deals with issues by watching his actions and doing our best to respond with the desired reaction.

So let’s get started. First off, a dog is not a people, even though I have told my wife otherwise numerous times. He is still a dog. I love them like people but they are not. Dogs need direction and guidance along with training, discipline and positive reinforcement in order to best interact with us. We need to recognize that Fluffy has intellectual limitations but yet a considerable band-width in dealing with us and our human quirks and issues. There are dog studies that have shown that a GSD or any pooch is capable of hundreds of cognitive decisions and actions and has the base line intellect of a four year old child. Some dogs, more than others, are quite perceptive and intuitive while some, like people are just dense. No telling which dogs, which breeds, what age or gender makes a dog any more or less intelligent, but as we all know, some dogs are way smarter than others.

People seem to think they can offend their dog by providing a correct such as “go to your house’ as a means to either stop some action or as a simple time out. Dogs to not take that, or basically any normal correction as offensive, but rather as a command from the alpha which they accept and comply in that moment and not as a means of rejection or as being offensive. Corrections provide learning and have no lasting effect beside changing the behavior as desired. Consistency in modifying a dogs behavior will typically yield the desired result, given the dog has the right mind set to accept and learn the desired result. Dogs however can’t be corrected verbally and need a consistent repetitive approach to learning a behavior.

Shame and guilt are two concepts that dogs readily exhibit. They do know when they have done wrong and they typically will exhibit shame by some action such as cowering, going into their crate or a corner when they have obviously done something that they are ashamed of. These actions can be pooping in the house, destroying something they should not have, taking something they should not have taken or doing something that is obviously against their known and learned behaviors. Dog can easily make the distinction between right and wrong and tend to show it more readily when confronted. Their signs of shame and their appearance of guilt is unlike the human interpretation of the same emotion because dogs live in the moment and when things right themselves the issue is forgotten. They know when they have done wrong but do not live with it much beyond the incident. It’s more of a flash in time then a recurring memory. If the dog is punished for the event, you better make sure the punishment is swift and immediate and in the presence of the action and not even 2 minutes after it because he cannot interpret the punishment and will not associate it with the issue unless it is done immediately after or during the negative action. Unlike humans that can verbally communicate, you cannot tell Fluffy that he is being punished for something unless he can associate the punishment with the crime. When you discipline a dog after the fact and he doesn’t know why he is being punished, he will remember the action as negative and that memory can last a long time. He sees it as an act of cruelty by you towards him and not as a result of an action he caused.

Jealousy is far easier to see when you have more than one animal. If you eat a sandwich in front of your dog, he sees that as your food. If you have 2 or more dogs and you give one a piece without the other, he sees that as a reason to be jealous and knows he was slighted. The feeling of wanting something he can’t have or was not offered lasts a few seconds and it is forgotten. Dogs don’t remember these things nor do that have the human trait of becoming jealous or mad for more than the time it takes to move to the next event.

Grief is a far more serious emotion that does effect dogs profoundly. If a pack member dies or is removed from the pack, they tend to miss that member tremendously. If their owner or care taker dies or leaves they also miss that person for far longer than with other more superficial situations like the sandwich example. Dog grief goes deep and can cause the animal to become withdrawn, not eat, become tense or even reactive based on the intensity of the prior relationship. Dogs do mourn and they also do get over things far more quickly than humans. They live in the moment and are pragmatic about things they know cannot be changed. You can easily see grief in your dog through their expressions, action, behaviors and body language. Additionally dogs grieve when you grieve, of if you are sad or even if you are depressed. Dogs take on many of the emotions of their owners and family members. They read us like a book and that allows them to take on our sadness, our joy, our loneliness or most any emotion that they see or feel we are experiencing. These emotional responses to our human feeling manifest themselves in the dog for as long as the owners feelings are able to be distinguished by the animal. They respond quickly as memory is not a canine trait, and when things come back to normal, so do they. Dogs rarely if ever retain these feelings without external stimulation to bring them on.

Joy and elation are also an easy emotions to detect. Happy dogs respond in happy ways. They spin, they bark, they jump for joy, all to show us how happy they are. Dogs get happy from good things happening. Daddy comes home, you take out the leash or ball to play or walk, you ready the boat or bike or even if you prepare a great meal, your canine will respond with joy and happiness. This feeling also is fleeting and lasts for the time the event is happening and then, like with other feelings disappears when the next series of happenings begins. Your dog feels elation and super positive when the stimulus is super positive. When he looks you in the eyes he feels euphoric, when he is petted he is so positively stimulated that he becomes relaxed, content and can easily show his happiness through his body language. He gets super happy when he knows what great event is coming next because he has experienced that event before. He knows that you are happy to do whatever it is you are doing and that also lights him up. Dogs memories are keen on positive events and their ability to detect the event is uncanny.

Fear and aggression have as much to do with breeding, genetics and training as they do with events happening to and around the dog. Dogs that are unsocialized have fear responses. These are not emotions but responses to certain negative stimulus that has either been learned or the dog has had a predisposition to the response by virtue of the breeding or the action being done to him somewhere in his past. Some working dogs that have been bred for K9 work, hunting, protection etc., are far more prone to exhibit these aggressive behaviors and responses to events than others. Any dog can become fearful, aggressive or the happily stimulated based on the events they received in their lives. These are not really as much emotions as they are responses, and in many cases they cannot be overcome easily. Dogs can’t sit down and discuss why they do what they do at times, so behavioral modifications can only be effective when repetitive positive responses are given to modify and retrain him to the negative stimulus that the animal fears. In rescue we see these situations as primarily deal breakers and we do not take in dogs who exhibit these unpredictable tendencies.

There are also certain emotions that are unique to dogs and are still mysteries to humans. Emotions such as pride, distress, elation, depression and love happen frequently in most every pet. It is hard, if not impossible, to say that some of these can be trained in, but surely they are all results of events and appear consistently in most dogs. It always makes me happy to see a rescued dog strutting his stuff and prancing across the back yard when he arrives here. You know he is experiencing relief from being extracted from the shelter or a bad home. You can easily see love when that same animal looks at you after being petted, fed or just being allowed to sit by your side. You can see distress and depression when they are penned up in a shelter run after having a long or short life in a good home. You can see love in their eyes when the see their new owner’s response to seeing them for the first time. They sense these positive emotions and relate immediately to them.

The assortment of dog emotions is quite endless and complex. If you have had a dog before, you have probably seen the diversity of these emotions and reactions so it is far easier for you to understand them than a new pet owner. For any new adopters, please take the time to understand your pet and what he is trying to say to you. Don’t judge him on your emotional level and allow him to learn without any fear of making mistakes. Be loving and consistent; be alpha to him but be a benevolent dictator. Understand when it is operator error and not the dogs fault that he doesn’t understand the intricate behaviors you wish to teach him without spending the time to mentor, understand and accept him for who he is and what he is capable of.