Sunday, May 8, 2011
Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Closing Session with Patricia McConnell- Emotions and Dogs
Patricia McConnell made us cry. Even people who had heard her talk on the subject of emotions and dogs before, who knew what she was going to say before she said it, didn't escape with a dry face. Yes, for all that we talked about theory and science and data at Clicker Expo, when it comes right down to it, we were there because we love our dogs.
But do our dogs love us? Do they have emotions? Trisha said that the evidence points to yes.
Here's the deal: emotions are primitive things. They integrate the body and environment. They are as important to us as is rational thought, and in fact, actually allow rational thought. Emotions enable us to make decisions, and without them, we would be unable to do things as simple as filing a piece of paper. It stands to reason that animals would need emotions to make decisions, too.
What's more, the limbic system- the part of the body that regulates emotions- is present in all mammals. Although some areas are bigger in some than others, we share all of the same brain structures. We also share many of the same hormones, such as oxytocin, which is critical to process of bonding and attachment in mother and young.
Still not convinced? Well, Trisha said that we often share external expressions of emotions with other animals. Things like fear, happiness and anger look similar among species. She showed us a great slide show demonstrating this; if you'd like to see the pictures, check out her book For the Love of a Dog. (And then read the whole thing- it's fabulous.)
The truth is, most biologists agree that mammals, including dogs, have emotions. However, there is a great deal of controversy over which ones they have, and how they experience them. Generally speaking, it appears that dogs can feel disgust, fear, anger, happiness, and “seeking.” They probably don't understand more complex emotions like jealousy, sympathy, or guilt.
But do they feel love? Well, it certainly seems so. Who hasn't spoken of the “unconditional” love of a dog? But is it truly unconditional love, or is it that they can't talk back? Their nonverbal status certainly enhances the primal connection we often feel with our dogs. They also elicit nurturing behaviors and empathy. Who hasn't cooed at a puppy, after all? These behaviors result in the release of oxytocin, which helps us bond to them even stronger. Perhaps that hormone also leads to the perception of unconditional love.
There's one thing we can all agree on though: No matter how they feel about us, we certainly love them. Trisha made us all cry when she shared the story of her beloved dog's death. Even now, I tear up just a little, knowing that I will (hopefully) outlive Maisy. I have such a hard time imagining life without her, and I have no idea how I will survive.
So go. Turn off your computer. Spend some time with your dog. Train if you wish, but don't worry about the result- you're a good trainer, and you could teach almost any dog to do that behavior. Instead, enjoy the process. Revel in the beauty of the relationship you have with your dog. Simply enjoy being together. Love him. And if you can, let him love you too.