Sunday, November 20, 2011

Patricia McConnell Seminar: Emotions in Dogs

Do dogs have emotions? While I'm confident that my regular readers will agree that, yes, dogs most certainly do, I know there are people out there that claim this is baseless anthropomorphism. I always have to shake my head a bit when I run across someone like that- have these people even met a dog?

Still, their skepticism is warranted. After all, B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, concentrated on external behavior because it is impossible to know the internal state of animals. Well... it was. Science today is closing that gap through the use of medical imaging technology and very clever research. At the seminar, Patricia spent some time to share a bit about emotions in dogs.

First though, a definition is in order. Patricia favors Damasio's definition: Emotions are the internal changes in the body (hormones, adrenal gland activation, etc.) that cause changes in expression (external behavior), and the thoughts and feelings that accompany them (an internal, subjective thing to be sure).

We know through imaging studies that dogs have many of the same brain structures, hormones, and neurotransmitters that humans do. What's more, we've learned that emotions are centered in the limbic system, also known as the mammalian brain (so named because all mammals share that particular structure). So internally, dogs meet the criteria for having emotions.

We also know that emotions serve to drive a lot of behavior: fear, frustration, and anger are the causes of many, many actions among humans and animals alike. In fact, emotions are needed for even the simplest of decision making; Patricia told us that things like deciding where to file a piece of paper is impossible without emotions. Our dogs don't file (unfortunately), but they do make plenty of decisions every day, and their behavior is definitely suggestive of different emotions. Therefore, we can only conclude that dogs meet the second criteria.

As for the third... well, while we'll probably never know exactly what a dog is thinking, we're getting closer to understanding what's going on in there, thanks to some very clever researchers. Here are the emotions science is pretty sure that dogs feel:

Disgust, Fear, and Anger
These are all very basic emotions. Disgust is considered the most primitive emotion of all since it is realated to whether or not something will kill you, especially in the sense of “ew, this is too gross to eat.” Anger is also pretty basic- Patricia shared that anger is mediated by the amygdala, and if you have one (and dogs do), you can get angry.

As for fear, well, we talk about fear in dogs all the time. Again, it's a primitive emotion necessary for life; if you don't fear danger you will die an untimely death. Our brains are very quick to make fear associations- an evolutionarily advantageous trait to be sure. A wild dog will live much longer if he learns to fear cars, for example.

Like with anger, the amygdala plays a key role, as well as the hippocampus. In fact, these systems can become overactive, causing the amygdalar pathway to bypass the cortex entirely, meaning that the animal will literally react without thinking. Since this is what happens with people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disodrder, this has caused Patricia to wonder if dogs can suffer from some sort of PTSD, too. The sypmtoms include anxiety, increased emotional arousal, irritability, being easily started, avoidance, trouble concentrating... sound familiar?

Treatment for fear in dogs, PTSD or not, typically involves avoiding triggers and counter-conditioning, a plan which Patricia feels might be lacking. While it does help address what is going on, it doesn't do much to change the internal state. She suggested looking to diet, massage, anxiety wraps, aroma therapy, homeopathy or chinese medicine, and anti-anxiety meds for a well-rounded treatment plan.

Many pet owners believe their dogs experience this emotion, citing the way they “just look guilty” after doing something they shouldn't have. But are the dogs actually experiencing guilt?

Alexandra Horowitz set out to find out. She had dogs and their owners participate in an experiment in which the dogs were left alone in a room with some food with a researcher to watch over them. Sometimes the dogs ate the food, and sometimes they didn't But sometimes the researchers engaged in a bit of subterfuge- they would tell the owners that the dog ate the food when he didn't, or that he didn't eat it when he actually did. When the owners returned, they were instructed to either scold their dogs or greet them normally depending on whether the food was there or not.

The researchers found that the so-called guilty look was actually a combination of nine different behaviors: avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to side/back, a drooping tail, low, quick wagging, lowered ears or head, moving away, raising a paw, and lip licking. What's more, whether or not the dog ate the food had no significant effect on these behaviors. What mattered was the owner's response. Scolding resulted in behaviors associated with the guilty look, and the most were seen if the dog was obedient and didn't eat the food, but was scolded anyway.

A similar study confirmed these findings. This time, Hecht and Gasci studied the behaviors associated with the “guilty look”, and found that there was no difference between dogs who ate the food, and those who didn't. And while it appeared that owners could tell if their dog ate the food or not, upon further study, it was determined that the owners weren't relying on behavioral cues, but rather on past experiences and expectations.

Dog owners believe their dogs can feel jealous- one study even asked them about it. 81% of dog owners agreed that their dogs did, and all of the examples given included a social triad with another person or dog involved. The behaviors described were what are generally considered to be attention seeking behaviors (nosing, pawing,etc.).

But does this pan out in the lab? It seems that it does. A recent study showed that dogs understand the concept of “reward inequity,” or to put it in plain English- they can experience jealousy. Here's the deal: the researchers worked with dogs in pairs. Each dog was asked to “give paw,” but only one was reinforced. The dogs were also worked with alone, where they were asked to perform the behavior without any reinforcement. The results showed that the dogs stopped responding sooner and required more prompts when they saw the other dog getting a reward than when they were alone. In both cases, the dog got no reinforcer, but simply being treated unfairly caused the dog's behavior to deteriorate quicker.

Patricia also teased us by telling us about some of the ongoing work into the concept of “fairness” with dogs. There is some really interesting science going on, and I can't wait to see some of the resulting studies.

So it would seem that dogs have emotions. I know that I certainly think so. Of course, I believed that even without knowing about the science, but it is interesting to see it studied in a controlled, systematic way, and I love that it gives us something to point to when we run across one of those people who don't think animals have emotions.

What about you guys? What emotions do you think dogs have? Do you have any great stories that illustrate one of the emotions above (or perhaps a different one)? I'd love to hear about your experiences!

If You Want to Know More


Anonymous said...

Another really interesting blog post!

I was recently thinking about emotions in dogs, most particularly guilt.

Toby, a rescue that I've had for a year now, used to love stealing tissues. One morning I walked into my bedroom and found him sitting on my bed, just about to shred a tissue he'd just stolen from my night table. The thing was, it was Toby's extremely guilty face that alerted me to his wrong doing, not the tissue itself. The sheets on my bed are white, just like the tissue, so I didn't even see it there, till I saw Toby's face and started looking for it. Clearly my behavior couldn't have influenced him, since I didn't even realize he'd done anything wrong. If anything, Toby's behavior caused a response in me and not the other way around in this case.

Not too long ago I would have said that Toby had the most guilty face, but maybe the guilty face was a conditioned response trained by his previous owner?

I'd also have to say that his expression looks much less guilty now, than when he first came to live with us. Maybe because our responses to 'bad' behavior aren't as severe as they were will his previous family?

Crystal Thompson said...

I'd guess that you're right about Toby's guilty face being a conditioned response. Sounds like the presence of the tissue+human is enough for him to worry. Very interesting that he looks less guilty now...

Tegan said...

I don't know about anger. I went and did some research on anger and the amygala, and to me it sounds like the physiology of anger is more a burst of an energy... ? I don't know. Perhaps you could elaborate on this more, 'cause I'm confused.

Crystal Thompson said...

I'm sorry, Tegan, but I can't elaborate. That's all I have in my notes about it. The context was this: Patricia was asking us which emotions we thought dogs have- doing a survey that you can see the results to in the linked blog posts. Afterwards, she made a comment about how dogs can feel anger because anger is processed in the amygdala, and dogs have an amygdala. That was about it. I would assume that's a simplification of the process, of course.

Has any of your research shown anger having ANYTHING to with the amygdala at all? Has it indicated where the burst of energy comes from? Or which brain structures are involved?

Jennifer Jo said...

Well written post about a very important subject. I'm sure I'll have occasion to refer to your blog in discussions regarding this matter, I can think of plenty of people who would benefit from reading your research. BTW, this is the second time in a week you that you blogged about something I was just reading up on! Lucky me! I don't know how you do it, but keep reading my thoughts!

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks Jennifer Jo. I'll try to keep reading your mind. ;)

Tegan said...

Oops, forgot to respond on this one. Found some other research (talking about the human amygdala) and remember this thread.

I have read about the amygdala because of this thread. ;) So my understanding is fresh and new.

From what I've read:

When an organism is pained or scared, the amygdala automatically produces an instantaneous response. The response is for a 'fight or flight' response - increased blood pressure and circulation, going tense, releasing neurotransmitters and hormones, and generally the organism becomes aroused.

Now, is this anger? That is the question I'm grappling with. I am not sure that sudden rush of adrenaline and everything else is really anger... But then, what I'm reading suggests that anger is just an 'unpleasant feeling' associated with pain or fear. The response from the amygdala could be called anger, I guess.

So my question is more 'what is anger?' than 'what does the amygdala got to do with anger?'

Crystal Thompson said...

And I'm now googling anger. Most definitions include a feeling of antagonism towards someone/thing that has wronged you. Which is actually a pretty complex cognitive process, when you think about it.

Tegan said...

Yeah, that's what I'm thinking... To me, being angry is an emotion associated with unfairness (and perhaps vengefulness). And, like you, I think that's pretty complex (though not impossible) for a dog to understand.

I think perhaps aggression is getting mixed up with anger. Certainly, stimulation of the amygdala (by fear or pain) may cause aggressive behaviour, but this doesn't mean the dog is angry... It means its scared or hurt and it is acting in self preservation.

Crystal Thompson said...

I wish I had a better memory. Patricia made a comment suggesting that aggression and anger are very similar, but I can't remember enough of the context or phrasing to be able to say what she said/meant.

Going back to the anger/amygdala link- I'm not as well-read on it as you are, but I can kind of see her point. Anger can be hard to control. It's sometimes such a rush of sudden emotion that it's difficult to stop yourself from reacting- which sound a lot like the way the amygdala can bypass the thinking part of the brain.

I'm probably getting hung up on words again (I do that so often), but that sounds more like rage to me, as compared to vengeful or indignant or just plain mad, you know? There are so many permutations of the same emotion...

Tegan said...

Everything I read says the amygdala is the first reaction, and it's uncontrolled. Then, other bits (that I haven't been reading about) kick in and start to introduce logic to that initial reaction.

The amygdala governs reactions to fear and pain, it tries to preserve the organism... That is, if something is hurting, the organism needs to react NOW instead of thinking about it. The amygdala provides that immediate response - so that might be running away from what is hurting, or it might be biting what is hurting, whatever. It provides a burst of adrenaline and energy that it hopes will 'save' the animal from the painful or scary thing.

I'm just struggling to see how that response is 'anger'. And I wish you remembered how Patricia linked anger to aggression. ;) Because I think they're different.

I think really we're just playing with definitions... But to me, anger also suggests that dogs may be capable of spite, retaliation, or revenge, too... I'm even less certain that dogs can do that.

Crystal Thompson said...

I'm not sure if dogs are capable of things like spite, retaliation, or revenge. It implies an ability to know you were treated wrongly, to take on another's perspective (they wouldn't like it if...), and to plot/plan/manipulate that action. If a person wanted to, he MIGHT be able to make an argument for that (the jealousy study, the work on imitation, and the planning... well, I'm not sure on that one, but I feel like dogs can do that).

That said... I don't WANT to make an argument for it. Call it my fondness for dogs and the "Disney Dog" myth that runs deep through our culture, but I want to believe they are capable of all the good emotions, and none of the bad.

Tegan said...

A little bit off topic, but not really. Debbie (at Fearful Dogs) made a post about HER fear in the woods recently. To me, she described perfectly how the amygdala jumps you into defensive drive, before your brain evaluates and applies logic and reason.

It's here:

(She doesn't use the term amygdala at all, of course, but it's just what came to my mind as I read her piece.)

Crystal Thompson said...

Tegan, I'm sure you follow Patricia's blog, but in case you don't, here's her post on anger in dogs: