Show Some Emotion

dogsWhen we describe a dog’s behaviour, character or temperament we use labels such as a “dominant temperament” to communicate to each other what we have observed, but as soon as we do we pigeonhole the dog into a type. This is not wise because we know from our own experience that behaviour is complex and no one label can be used to accurately describe how we feel in all the situations we find ourselves in during the course of everyday events. So why should we impose single concept descriptions on the personality of our dogs?

The key to this is to consider how a dog feels from one situation to another and use terms that describe that supposed feeling rather than categorise it as a type. This may seem complicated but it is simple in practice. For example, instead of saying a dog is dominant it would be better to say that it behaves in an uninhibited manner in a given situation, and instead of subordinate we can say it behaves in an inhibited manner in other situations. Of course we can only guess at how a dog feels but body language gives us plenty of clues because it is an expression of the dog’s emotional state. In effect body language is a window through which we can view the outcome of a dog’s internal process. This has been illustrated by the fact that what we describe as submissive body language can be triggered when a dog is subjected to unpleasant experiences when there is no other animal present to submit to. Of course, when other dogs are present the body posture communicates something to them because they have normally learnt that the dog that displays it is unlikely to be challenging. 

The scientific community has a tradition of maintaining that animals do not have emotions because they require a higher level of intelligence than animals are capable of. This is an arrogant way at looking at the animals we live with. We all know from observing our dogs in a variety of situations that they have a range of expressions that we interpret because we think we know how they are feeling at the time. It seems more sensible to say that dogs have the same sensations generated by internal chemical processes we experience but they can’t label them. For example a dog may feel jealous when its owner gives attention to another dog in the home or cuddles another family member. We might be able to observe how the dog feels by it pushing in as if it is competing to get some attention back. How hard it tries will be partly determined by how inhibited it is. In the worst cases where a dog feels very jealous or frustrated and is also very uninhibited we might see aggressive behaviour. Conversely, if the dog is inhibited it might look depressed and withdrawn, the human equivalent of sulking perhaps. What the dog can’t do is understand that it is feeling jealous or depressed, it just lives it. As far as we know it also lacks the ability to worry about it away from the situation. If this is the case only humans have the ability to generate anxiety and other emotional states in their head by mere thoughts alone.

© David Appleby
First published, in edited form in, Dogs Today 2000