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
- For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotions in You and Your Best Friend, by Patricia McConnell
- Patricia's Blog: What Emotions Do You Share with Your Dog?
- Patricia's Blog: Survey Results on Emotions in Animals
- Patricia's Blog: Yup, Dogs Can Be Disgusted!
- Patricia's Blog: Anger and Anger Management
- Looking for Spinoza, a book by Antonio Damasio
- Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour, a study by Alexandra Horowitz
- ...and the press release
- Do You Think I Ate It? Owner Perceptions and Behavioral Assessment of the “Guilty Look” in Dogs, by Hecht and Gasci (scroll to page 14 of the document)
- The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs, by Range et al
- Video of the experiment
- Secondary emotions in non-primate species? Behavioural reports and subjective claims by animal owners, by Morris et al