These days there is plenty to sigh about. Whether it’s presidential politics this side of the Atlantic or immigration and ‘Brexit’ in Europe. However, today’s post is not about our, as in human, sighs but is about the sighs that our dogs make.
“When the sigh is combined with half-closed eyes, it communicates pleasure; with fully open eyes, it communicates disappointment: ‘I guess you are not going to play with me.'”
Geez. Guilt trip, anyone?
A dog’s sigh is “a simple emotional signal that terminates an action,” writes Stanley Coren, Ph.D. in his book, “Understanding Your Dog for Dummies.”
“If the action has been rewarding, it signals contentment. Otherwise, it signals an end of effort.”
So if you and your dog just finished a fun romp in the yard or a great walk in the park, that sigh means, “I’m content and am going to settle down here awhile.” If your dog has begged at your side all during dinner without a payoff, that sigh signifies, “I’ll give up now and simply be depressed.”
Dog trainer Pat Engel agrees.
“My own unscientific observation is that dogs usually sigh while resting, or when they are what I call ‘resigned,'” she writes in the San Francisco Chronicle. “These sighs seem to mark a physiological transition into a deeper state of relaxation.”
If you feel like your dog sighs (or yawns or makes other noises excessively), it’s worth mentioning to your vet, Engel suggests. There’s always a chance that a health issue might be at the root of the sounds.
If a medical reason isn’t to blame, then concentrate on reading the cues your canine is sharing.
Massachusetts dog trainer Jody Epstein says a dog’s body language is definitely the key to interpreting the noise he’s making.
“If his body is relaxed, ears soft, head down on the bed in what we might call a ‘sleeping’ position, and he’s in perfect health otherwise, then I’d expect it’s just a sign of uber relaxation,” she writes in her All Experts advice column. “If he’s laying there, but sitting up watching you and doing it, then it’s more likely an active communication that you may wish to address.”
Like, hey, buddy, isn’t it time for a treat? Or when was the last time we played ball?
Is a sigh always a sigh?
“Dogs make many vocalizations, and they mean different things depending on various factors such as context, experience, relationships, the individual dog, and much more,” says certified animal behaviorist and dog trainer Katenna Jones of Jones Animal Behavior, in Warwick, Rhode Island. “There is also human interpretation: One person’s sigh is another person’s huff, moan, groan or whine.”
And, Jones says, some breeds tend to make more or different sounds than others.
“The most important thing is to remember there is no one answer. It’s important to not apply human feelings to dogs because dogs are not humans!” she says. “Look at the context of situations in which your dog is sighing, take note, and see if you can identify why YOUR dog is sighing — because it may be different than why MY dog is sighing.”
Just because we don’t always know what our dogs are trying to say, doesn’t mean we should stop trying to figure things out.
The AKC points out: “Dogs make sounds both intentionally and unintentionally, and they all have certain meanings. Just because we do not understand the wonderful variety of sounds that dogs vocalize does not mean that dogs are not doing their best to communicate with us.”
So come on, you dear readers, send in some examples of sighing and other wonderful sounds that your dogs make!
Here’s my contribution from YouTube. The sound of a German Shepherd deep asleep and a very familiar sound in this house when Pharaoh is sound asleep.
Published on Sep 5, 2014
At first I had no idea it was him. I thought maybe it was my husband (who was downstairs in the living room taking a nap) and the dogs and I were upstairs….but soon figured out it was him! This was the first time I had heard Jax snore. I especially love his little face when he was woken up by his brother. Which I think he did on purpose. Haha. It is hilarious!
Exploring the range of emotions felt and displayed by our dogs.
Like so many bloggers, I subscribe to the writings of many others. Indeed, it’s a rare day when I don’t read something that touches me, stirring up emotions across the whole range of feelings that we funny humans are capable of.
Such was the case with a recent essay published on Mother Nature Network. It was about dogs and whether they are capable of complex emotions. Better than that, MNN allow their essays to be republished elsewhere so long as they are fully and properly credited.
Joy, fear, surprise, disgust, sadness. These are the basic emotions dogs feel that are also easy enough for humans to identify. But what about more complex emotions?
Many dog owners are convinced their dogs feel guilty when they’re caught misbehaving. In the same way, many owners are sure their dogs feel pride at having a new toy or bone. But it gets tricky when you assign these sorts of emotions to a dog. These are definitely emotions felt by humans, but are they also felt by dogs?
Why we question the presence of complex emotions is wrapped up in the way we get to those emotions. The American Psychological Association explains, “Embarrassment is what’s known as a self-conscious emotion. While basic emotions such as anger, surprise or fear tend to happen automatically, without much cognitive processing, the self-conscious emotions, including shame, guilt and pride, are more complex. They require self-reflection and self-evaluation.”
Essentially we’re comparing our behavior or situation to a social expectation. For instance, guilt comes when we reflect on the fact that we’ve violated a social rule. We need to be aware of the rule and what it means to break it. So, can dogs feel guilt? Well, exactly how self-reflective and self-evaluative are dogs?
Among humans, children begin to experience empathy and what are called secondary emotions when they are around 2 years old. Researchers estimate that the mental ability of a dog is roughly equal to that of an 18-month-old human. “This conclusion holds for most mental abilities as well as emotions,” says Stanley Coren in an article in Modern Dog Magazine. “Thus, we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs. Just like a two-year-old child, our dogs clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than found in adult humans.”
In other words, if 18-month-old children can’t yet experience these emotions, and dogs are roughly equal to them in cognitive and emotional ability, then dogs can’t feel these self-reflective emotions either. At least, that’s what researchers have concluded so far.
Is that guilt or fear?
The evidence for primary emotions like love and happiness in dogs abounds, but empirical evidence for secondary emotions like jealousy and guilt is sparse. And this is partially because it’s difficult to create tests that provide clear-cut answers. When it comes to guilt, does a dog act guilty because she knows she did something wrong, or because she’s expecting a scolding? The same expression can come across as guilt or fear. How do we know which it is?
“In wolves, it is thought that guilt-related behaviors serve to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans. The problem is that the display of the associated behaviors of guilt are not, themselves, evidence of the capacity to emotionally experience guilt… It may still be some time before we can know for certain whether dogs can experience guilt, or whether people can determine if a dog has violated a rule prior to finding concrete evidence of it.”
Guilt, and other secondary emotions, are complicated. That’s exactly why cognitive awareness and emotional capacity in dogs is still a topic under study. In fact, it’s an area that has grown significantly in recent years. We may discover that dogs have a more complex range of emotions than we’re aware of today.
Dogs are highly social animals, and social animals are required to navigate a range of emotions in themselves and those around them to maintain social bonds. It wasn’t so long ago that scientists thought that dogs (and other non-human animals) didn’t have any feelings at all. Perhaps our understanding of dog emotions is simply limited by the types of tests we’ve devised to understand their emotions. After all, we’re trying to detect a sophisticated emotional state in a species that doesn’t speak the same language.
There’s a lot we don’t know
Marc Bekoff makes the argument for leaving the possibility open. In an article in Psychology Today he writes, “[B]ecause it’s been claimed that other mammals with whom dogs share the same neural bases for emotions do experience guilt, pride, and shame and other complex emotions, there’s no reason why dogs cannot.”
Keeping the possibility open is more than just an emotional animal rights issue. There is a scientific basis for continuing the research. A recent study showed that the brains of dogs and humans function in a more similar way than we previously thought.
Scientific American reports that “dog brains have voice-sensitive regions and that these neurological areas resemble those of humans. Sharing similar locations in both species, they process voices and emotions of other individuals similarly. Both groups respond with greater neural activity when they listen to voices reflecting positive emotions such as laughing than to negative sounds that include crying or whining. Dogs and people, however, respond more strongly to the sounds made by their own species.”
Until recently, we had no idea of the similar ways human and dog brains process social information.
So do dogs feel shame, guilt and pride? Maybe. Possibly. It’s still controversial, but for now, there seems to be no harm in assuming they do unless proven otherwise.
Footnote: At this point in the MNN article there was a link to a series of gorgeous photographs of dogs. If you dear readers can wait, then I will publish them this coming Sunday. If you can’t wait, then go here!
It really is absurd to think that animals don’t have feelings!
Many thousands of animal owners will intuitively know that animals have feelings. Not only expressed through their behaviour but also through many other subtle signs including facial expressions. But what about the science behind this?
Back towards the end of May, there was an item on the BBC News website that was headlined: Ape tantrums: Chimps and bonobos emotional about choice. It caught my eye.
Ape tantrums: Chimps and bonobos emotional about choice
Like many humans, chimpanzees and bonobos react quite emotionally when they take risks that fail to pay off.
This is according to researchers from Duke University in the US, who developed decision-making games that the apes played to earn edible treats.
Some animals that lost the game – receiving a bland piece of cucumber rather than a preferred piece of banana – reacted with what looked like the ape equivalent of a tantrum.
It was then only a matter of a couple of ‘mouse clicks‘ to go to that Plos One publication of the findings.
Chimpanzees and Bonobos Exhibit Emotional Responses to Decision Outcomes
The interface between cognition, emotion, and motivation is thought to be of central importance in understanding complex cognitive functions such as decision-making and executive control in humans. Although nonhuman apes have complex repertoires of emotional expression, little is known about the role of affective processes in ape decision-making. To illuminate the evolutionary origins of human-like patterns of choice, we investigated decision-making in humans’ closest phylogenetic relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus). In two studies, we examined these species’ temporal and risk preferences, and assessed whether apes show emotional and motivational responses in decision-making contexts. We find that (1) chimpanzees are more patient and more risk-prone than are bonobos, (2) both species exhibit affective and motivational responses following the outcomes of their decisions, and (3) some emotional and motivational responses map onto species-level and individual-differences in decision-making. These results indicate that apes do exhibit emotional responses to decision-making, like humans. We explore the hypothesis that affective and motivational biases may underlie the psychological mechanisms supporting value-based preferences in these species.
Wonderfully, just a short time later I found on Psychology Today an article about the emotions felt by dogs. It was written by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., who is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. (As an aside, a quick search revealed that Prof. Coren was mentioned in a blog post back in October, 2011 in this place: The power of joy.)
So imagine my pleasure and delight at receiving written permission from the Professor to republish his article in full. So without further ado, here it is.
Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?
Dogs have the same emotions as a human 2 year-old child.
Since most of us routinely read emotions in our dogs (wagging tail means happy, cringing means afraid and so forth) it may be difficult to believe that the existence of real emotions in dogs was, and in some places still is, a point of scientific controversy. In the distant past it was presumed that dogs had very rich mental lives with feelings much like those of humans. However with the rise of science things began to change. We learned enough about the principles of physics and mechanics, so that we could build complex machines, and began to notice that living things (both people and animals) were also based upon by systems governed by mechanical rules and chemical processes. In the face of such discoveries, religions stepped in to suggest that there must be more to human beings than simply mechanical and chemical events. Church scholars insisted that people have souls, and the evidence they gave for this was the fact that humans have consciousness and feelings. Animals might have the same mechanical systems, but they did not have a divine spark, and therefore they do not have the ability to experience true feelings.
Since most research at the time was church sponsored it is not surprising that prominent scholars, such as the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes adopted this viewpoint. In a highly influential set of analyses, Descartes suggested that animals like dogs were simply some kind of machine. He would thus describe my Beagle, Darby, as simply being a dog-shaped chassis, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys. Although this machine doesn’t have consciousness and emotions it can still be programmed to do certain things.
In recent times science has progressed a long way beyond Descartes and we now understand that dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs also have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which, in humans, is involved with feeling love and affection for others. With the same neurology and chemistry that people have, it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions that are similar to ours. However it is important to not go overboard and immediately assume that the emotional ranges of dogs and humans are the same.
To understand what dogs feel we must turn to research which was done to explore the emotions of humans. Not all people have the full range of all possible emotions. In fact at some points in your life you did not have the full complement of emotions that you feel and express today. Research shows that infants and very young children have a more limited range of emotions, but over time the child’s emotions begin to differentiate and they come to be able to experience different and more complex emotional states.
This data is important to our understanding of the emotional lives of dogs because researchers have come to believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities — including emotions. Thus we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs. Like a young child, dogs will clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than we find in adults.
I’ve illustrated this in the accompanying illustration. At birth a human infant only has an emotion that we might call excitement. This indicates how aroused he is, ranging from very calm up to a state of frenzy. Within the first weeks of life the excitement state comes to take on a positive or a negative flavor, so we can now detect the general emotions of contentment and distress. In the next couple of months disgust, fear, and anger, become detectable in the infant. Joy often does not appear until the infant is nearly six months of age and it is followed by the emergence of shyness or suspicion. True affection (the sort that it makes sense to use the label “love” for) does not fully emerge until nine or ten months of age.
The complex social emotions, those which have elements that must be learned, don’t appear until late. Shame and pride take more than three years to appear, while guilt appears around six months after these. A child must be nearly four years of age before it feels contempt.
This developmental sequence is the golden key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do, and have all of the emotional range that they will ever achieve by the time they are four to six months of age (depending on the rate of maturing in their breed). However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love. However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.
Now many people might argue that they have seen evidence which indicates that their dog is capable of experiencing guilt. The usual situation is where you come home and your dog starts slinking around and showing discomfort, and you then find that he or she has left a smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It is natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that it is feeling guilty about its transgression. However this is not guilt, but simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment—he will never feel guilt.
So what does this mean for those of us who live with, and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to dress your dog in that silly costume for a party. He will not feel shame, regardless how ridiculous he looks. He will also not feel pride at winning a prize at a dog show or an obedience competition. However your dog can still feel love for you, and contentment when you are around, and aren’t these the emotions we truly value?
So going to return to that BBC News item. I broke off after that reference to the findings being published in Plos One. This is how the BBC item continued:
The researchers worked with 23 chimps and 15 bonobos in two ape sanctuaries in the Republic of Congo.
“The animals were all [rescued] orphans of the bushmeat trade,” explained lead researcher Alexandra Rosati, now at Yale University.
“They’re sort of in semi-captivity, but it’s possible to play games with them.
“It’s as close as we can come to wild animals without actually being in the wild.”
Dr Rosati, who studies problem-solving in apes in order to examine the origins of human behaviour, designed two games.
In the first, the animals could choose between receiving a relatively small food reward immediately, or receiving a larger reward but having to wait for it.
The second game involved choosing between a “safe” and a “risky” option. The safe option was six peanuts hidden under a bowl. But a second bowl concealed either a slice of cucumber or a highly favoured portion of banana.
Many of the apes – both bonobos and chimps – became emotional when they had to wait or took a gamble that did not pay off.
The researchers recorded some very tantrum-like responses: vocalisations including “pout moans” and “screams”, as well as anxious scratching and banging on the bars of the enclosure.
“Some of the reactions look similar to a kid [shouting] ‘no, I wanted it!’,” said Dr Rosati.
The results, Dr Rosati explained, suggest that the emotional component of decision-making – feelings of frustration and regret that are so fundamental to our own decisions – are intrinsic to ape society and are not uniquely human.
The researchers also found differences in the way the two species responded to the games; chimps were more willing to take risks, and also more patient than bonobos.
This could suggest that the apes’ capacity for emotion may have helped shape the way they live.
“These differences might be reflected in differences in how the apes choose to forage in the wild,” said Dr Rosati.
“This might be why chimpanzees are more likely to engage in risky strategies like hunting, in that you could spend all day pursuing a monkey, but end up with nothing.
Overall, she said that the results suggested that decision-making in apes involved moods and motivations similar to our own.
OK, better let the dogs outside now – I’m on the receiving end of that look!
This is a guest post from Joelle Jordan. Let me broadcast my gratitude for this lovely story. For two reasons. The first is that Joelle is very generous in sharing her fine work and the second is that at the time of me putting this Blog post together, 4pm yesterday, I really needed a helping hand – have been short of time all week-end. So thank-you Joelle. Here’s her story.
Joy is a difficult commodity to come by these days. I don’t mean entertainment, I don’t mean a good laugh, I mean pure joy, where, even just for a single moment, all worries and doubts, frustration and anger are lifted as though by Atlas.
Like so many other humans in our world, I often find myself in a constant state of stress. There always seems to be something to worry about, whether it’s money, job fulfilment, the state of my relationships, getting the house cleaned, finding time to get to the market, and more. If given the chance, I know we all could spend nearly all of our waking hours (and some of our sleeping hours, too) worrying about something. We spend so much time on the many things that inevitably work themselves out, and so little time on things that will create a memory and a crystal moment of joy.
My little dog Charlie spends his time in the completely opposite fashion; spending his waking hours seeking joy, and committing less time to things that worry him.
Charlie seems to exist normally in three states of being; content, happy and utterly joyful. When I see him in an emotional state other than these, it nearly breaks my heart. I wonder why this little carefree being who brings such happiness to my life should be anything less than blissful at all times.
I notice something about how Charlie handles his stressful moments, however few and far between they may be. A recent example just occurred. My partner and I are teaching him how to behave on a leash. He has generally not given us any problems on a leash and took to the activity rather quickly. My partner can easily walk him to the corner and back, and he happily accompanies her, listening to her commands and responding, exploring his world in the safe company of his mama, creating a nice outing for them both.
However, his behavior closer to the house is less than stellar, barking at people (especially children who are frenetic and loud) and other dogs, generally forgetting that he is neither a big dog nor in charge of everyone, and just acting rather rude. A change in behavior from his human friend and he learned quickly that running after something and barking while on the leash earns him a very sudden and not so gentle stop, all powered by his own momentum, his harness jerking him off his paws and backwards. After the first incident or two, he ran back to me, the little boy that he is, placing his paws on my leg as I squatted down to him, burying his head in my chest. I assured him that he was fine and stroked him, and told him, “You can’t do that, buddy, see what happens?”
Here is where the story could turn into his utter contempt of the harness and leash. Rather, though, after a little stroking and encouragement, he became ready to try again. This time, instead of running and barking after the children at play in the neighbor’s yard, he calmly walked with me to the end of our driveway and then sat quietly and watched them shoot hoops. When it was time to go in, we walked back to the front door, accompanied by the cheering compliments of “Good job!” and pats from my partner. I saw him begin to walk a little taller and prouder, somehow understanding about a job well done and lesson learned. He trotted through the front door in search of his brother, our Chihuahua Jordan. His happy tongue dangled in wait for the promised treat. The stress he’d been seemingly engulfed in was simply released, gone. It was experienced and then just let go.
Perhaps I’m slightly jaded; after all, it was just a simple leash lesson. In truth, this little animal has no responsibilities except to be cute, not to pee in the dining room and not to chew on things. He has no bills to pay; his only worry is probably something vague about his supper. Sometimes, when letting them out of their crates, Charlie is less happy to see me (master, mama, food giver, spoiler) but is nearly bursting to get at and play with his big brother Jordan. Personal feelings (hurt and otherwise) aside, isn’t there a lesson to be learned here? He continues to teach me.
I watch his eyes. I have since I’ve known my little guy; I find them to be fascinating. In Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote describes Merle as a “four eyed” dog; a dog that seems to have eyebrows (darker fur over his eyes ) that help express his feelings. Charlie is also a four-eyed dog.
Stanley Coren, the astute canine psychologist from the University of British Columbia, has also noted that these “four-eyed” dogs obtained their reputation for psychic powers “because their expressions were easier to read than those of other dogs. The contrasting-colored spots make the movement of the muscles over the eye much more visible.”
Case in point: the other morning Jordan had burrowed under an Indian blanket for it was a little chilly. Charlie, on the other hand, was in simple need of something: play. Jordan, however, was warming and had no interest. Charlie looked up at me, and held a conversation with me with only his eyes: Mom, make him play!
“He doesn’t want to play, bud, I’m sorry.”
He’s under the blanket! That’s the best time to play!
“But he doesn’t want to play right now, Charlie.”
Distraught. His eyebrows were high but off to the side, the classic cartoon expression of distress. If his lip could’ve quivered from holding back tears, it would have. A soft whimper.
How can that be?
It was a less than joyful moment for Charlie, but it was something out of my power to control. All I could do was redirect him. I enlisted him to come help me with the laundry. This is a favorite past-time of his because there are dryer sheets to be rooted out and torn to shreds. As I moved the clothes from the washer to the dryer, I saw that my boy had found his joy again but not in search of dryer sheets: he had jumped into the basket of dirty laundry and discovered a plethora of good and interesting smells, one of my t-shirts now covering his head like a scarf.
He was in heaven for probably the fourth or fifth time that morning.
Joelle in speaking about joy echoes a part of yesterday’s sermon that I hope to write a little about before the end of the week.