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Recognizing the Emotions of Dogs

Few who have lived with dogs would deny that dogs have feelings. Taking a cue from his great friend Darwin, who spoke of conscience in the dog, George Romanes wrote that "the emotional life of the dog is highly developed--more highly, indeed, than that of any other animal." (He did not include the human animal, though perhaps he should have done so.) Of course dogs have feelings, and we have no trouble acknowledging most of them. Joy, for example. Can anything be as joyous as a dog? Bounding ahead, crashing into the bushes while out on a walk, happy, happy, happy. Conversely, can anything be as disappointed as a dog when you say, "No, we are not going for a walk"? Down he flops onto the floor, his ears fall, he looks up, showing the whites of his eyes, with a look of utter dejection. Pure joy, pure disappointment.

But are this joy and disappointment identical to what humans mean when we use these words? What dogs do, the way they behave, even the sounds they make, seem instantaneously translatable into human emotional terms. When a dog is rolling in fresh-cut grass, the pleasure on her face is unmistakable. No one could be wrong in saying that what she is feeling is akin to what any of us (though less often, perhaps) may feel. The words used to describe the emotion may be wrong, our vocabulary imprecise, the analogy imperfect, but there is also some deep similarity that escapes nobody. My dog may appear to feel joy and sorrow much the way I do, and the appearance here is critical: We often have no more to go on when it comes to our fellow humans.

All dog caretakers (just another word for companion and friend) have marveled at the exuberant greeting their dogs give them after a brief absence. Sasha twirls around in delight, squealing and making extraordinary sounds. What accounts for this display of unbounded pleasure in our return? We tend to explain it by assuming a kind of stupidity: The dog thought I was gone forever. Dogs, we say, have no sense of time. As Robert Kirk of the Cornell Veterinary School once put it to me, dogs don't watch the clock. Every minute is forever. Everything is for good. Out means gone. In other words, when dogs do not behave as we do, we assume it to be irrational behavior. Yet a lover is entranced to see the beloved again after even a brief absence--and dogs are all about love. (For a fuller discussion on dogs and love, see Chapter 3.)

Another explanation for dogs' delight in our return may be found in the way in which puppies greet their mother. As soon as the mother appears, the puppies crowd around her, eager to nurse or expecting her to vomit food for them. Wolves have a greeting ceremony during which they wag their tales, lick one another, and bite the muzzles of other wolves. The pleasure of the puppies may be a vestige of this ceremony, as John Paul Scott and J. L. Fuller suggest.

Soon after she joined the family, Sasha was sitting next to me one evening as I worked on an early draft of this chapter. I had been alone all day, working. There were just the two of us sitting in the living room, and it was very quiet. I looked over at Sasha and noticed that she was looking at me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the thought: There is another being in this room, another consciousness. There is somebody here besides me. What, though, was Sasha thinking? Why did she suddenly glance up at me? Was she just checking to make sure I was still there, that I had nothing else in mind? Or was it a more complicated thought, one that was imbued (as many thoughts are) with feelings--affection, for example, or perhaps anxiety? She looked so peaceful, lying there. Was she feeling something like tranquillity? For certain Hindu philosophers, tranquillity is the master emotion, the one that underlies all others--it has been so fascinating to me that it was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis at Harvard. Perhaps I was merely projecting my own feelings on to Sasha. It is hard to know.

As Sasha sat quietly next to me, looking contented, every so often sighing with what appeared to be contentment, I wondered what she was actually feeling. How I would love to be her for just one moment, to feel what she was feeling. I have had this desire, more than once, with people, too. Does one ever know what another human being is actually feeling? It may be no harder to find out the truth about feelings in dogs than it is in people.

The question of how we know what we feel, let alone what somebody else feels, is beset with difficulties. Speaking to other people, we often use shorthand: "I feel sad" or "I feel happy." But more often than not what we feel is an emotional state for which there are no precise verbal equivalents. Think of how we restrict ourselves with language. "I'm depressed," we say. Yet that is only the vaguest hint of a more complex set of feelings. It is probably the same for dogs; their joy is at least as complicated (in the sense that we are not always certain of its components; perhaps memory of earlier pleasure plays a role and perhaps it is entirely bound to the moment) and hard to define.

While it is clear that we can learn a great deal about dogs from observing their behavior in terms of purely external actions, I think it is time to recognize that we could understand much more from observing how dogs feel. Moreover, we could learn something about our own feelings as well. For in the realm of feelings we can have no sense of superiority. After a lifetime of affectionate regard for dogs and many years of close observation and reflection, I have reached the conclusion that dogs feel more than I do (I am not prepared to speak for other people). They feel more, and they feel more purely and more intensely. By comparison the human emotional landscape seems murky with subterfuge and ambivalence and emotional deception, intentional or not. In searching for why we are so inhibited compared with dogs, perhaps we can learn to be as direct, as honest, as straightforward, and especially as intense in our feelings as dogs are.

Freud remarked on the fact that"dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations." In other words, dogs are without the ambivalence with which humans seem cursed. We love, we hate, often the same person, on the same day, maybe even at the same time. This is unthinkable in dogs, whether because, as some people believe, they lack the complexity or, as I believe, they are less confused about what they feel. It is as if once a dog loves you, he loves you always, no matter what you do, no matter what happens, no matter how much time goes by. Dogs have a prodigious memory for people they have known. Perhaps this is because they associate people with the love they felt for them, and they derive pleasure from remembering this love.

Sasha is possessed by my two small kittens, Raj and Saj. The minute she sees these two tiny fur dots, she goes into hyper-alert mode. She begins to whine and to moan and to groan. She looks at me with a pleading look, as if I hold the key to helping her get what she so badly wants. She sniffs them. She follows them from room to room, whining piteously. The first night they were here, Sasha never slept at all. She lay on the floor next to their cage, crossed her feet daintily, and observed them all through the night. When I let them out, she gently put her paw on them. The cats were a little dumbfounded by the whole thing, and especially at what Sasha took to doing by the second week: She would pick one up in her mighty jaws, taking great care not to harm him, carry him into another room, deposit him somewhere, and then head off to find the other one to do the same. Seeing her carrying these little orange dots from room to room was as puzzling for me as it was evidently for the cats. Soon, however, they wanted to play. One of the cats rolled over and reached out with his little paw. Yet their interest in Sasha is mild compared to hers in them. There can be no mistaking the intensity of her interest in these kittens. The nature of this interest is another matter.

What does she want? Could it be that a maternal instinct has been awakened and Sasha wants to act as a mother to the kittens? Does she really think they are her puppies, and want to bring them into a den? Or is her interest predatory, in that she wants to eat them and is torn between her desire to listen to me ("Do not eat the kittens!") and her instincts as a predator telling her that a kitten makes a good meal? Is she merely curious, wondering if these small beings are some odd kind of puppy? Maybe she is just herding them; she is after all a shepherd.

None of these explanations is entirely satisfactory. If it were a mothering instinct at work, she would behave similarly to rabbits, say, or geese, moaning when she sees them (instead of chasing them). Moreover, Sasha has had no pups. I doubt that she wants to eat them; I can barely persuade her to eat a piece of steak. Nor is she stupid; she knows the difference between a dog and a cat. If she were herding the kittens, she would not pick them up in her mouth, nor moan and groan with some inexpressible need or feeling. The truth is that I don't know why she's so drawn to them, and nobody else knows either. It would be so much simpler if only we could ask, "Sasha, why are you so interested in these small fur balls?" "Simple, just look at how adorable they are!" Or "They look so small and helpless, I want to protect them." Or even "Beats me." Whatever the behavior means, it is clear that Sasha is filled with feeling for these little kittens. It is clear because she moans and groans and follows them from room to room, and cocks her head and looks puzzled and intrigued. That is why I say she is possessed. She wants something from them, she feels something for them, and she seems to want to express those feelings.

It is hard to empathize with her because humans generally do not walk behind kittens sighing and groaning. There does not seem to be an equivalent for us. Perhaps, then, Sasha is demonstrating to me one of my "pet theories": As well as the emotions animals and humans have in common, animals can also access emotions that humans do not share, ones different from those we know, because animals are other; they are not the same as human beings. Their senses, their experiences, open them to a totally different (or new) set of feelings of which we know little or nothing. That a whole world of canine feelings remains closed to us is an intriguing notion. Some of these feelings could be based on the dog's sensory capacities. According to one early authority, a dog can smell 100 million times better than we do (I will return to the topic in Chapter 5). But even if the true figure is significantly less, the fact remains that when Sasha puts her nose to the ground, she becomes aware of a world about which I can only make guesses. Similarly, when Sasha cocks her ears, she hears sounds of which I am altogether unaware.

In the case of Sasha's interest in the kittens, we are dealing not with a question of superior (or inferior) sensory capacities but something else, something social. We like to assume that dogs and humans are social in very similar ways, and that therefore humans are uniquely qualified to understand whatever emotions a dog may have based on belonging (like us) to a pack. We, too, have deep interests in one another's social lives and the web of interrelations interdependence creates. We assume this is why dogs are able to understand us so well, and appear to empathize with humans from their own direct experience.

Perhaps they are so often right about human emotions because their social world is similar to ours. We are not similar to cats in the same way, and cats are not all that good at understanding us. We do not expect the same kind of sympathy from our cat as we do from our dog. A cat the size of a lion would be an animal we would approach with some hesitation. No matter what size, however, most of us would accept a reliable dog as being reliable. The German ethologist P. Leyhausen, an expert on the cat family, makes the point that nobody chose to domesticate the cat; it chose domestication itself, while nevertheless maintaining its independent nature. He believes that the cat is domestic, but not domesticated.

The German scholar Eberhard Trumler suggests that it was not wolves who joined the human fold but the opposite. He pointed out that wolves, phylogenetically older than us and superbly equipped for hunting, had no need of human help. Men, on the other hand, derive from plant-eating ancestors and are not nearly as well equipped for hunting as are wolves. In order to eat, wolves scarcely need us at all, but we could benefit from the help of wolves. It may well be that human groups followed wolf packs, waited until they had brought down a kill, then chased the wolves away. Indian wolves are often chased away from their kills by wild pigs, and the same could have been true of early humans and wolves.

The naturalist and writer Jared Diamond points out that the large mammals were all domesticated between 8000 and 2500 B.C. Domestication began with the dog, then moved to sheep, goats, and pigs, and ended with Arabian and Bactrian camels and water buffalos. He believes that since 2500 B.C. there have been no significant additions. Why this is so is a question that has never been answered.

Although other animals have been domesticated--primarily the cat, the horse, certain birds, rabbits, cattle--no other animal (wild, tame, or domesticated) carries such meaning for humans as the dog. We feel strongly about such nondomesticated animals as wolves, elephants, and dolphins (all of which can be tamed but over whose reproductive life we exercise little control), but our direct interactions with them are much more restricted. By raising all these domesticated animals over centuries, we have altered their genetic makeup to make them conform to our desires. We control their reproductive functions and breed them to suit our needs, just as we control their territory and food supply. Juliet Clutton-Brock, an expert on domestication, believes, as Darwin did, that only humans benefit from the association. She quotes Darwin to the effect that "as the will of man thus comes into play we can understand how it is that domestic races of animals and cultivated races of plants often exhibit an abnormal character, as compared with natural species; they have been modified not for their own benefit, but for that of man."

Michael Fox, a dog expert and Humane Society vice president (in charge of bioethics and farm animal protection), points out that rapid maturation, disease resistance, high fertility, and longevity, all of which we foster in domesticated animals, would in nature produce overabundance of certain species, which would cause a shift in the ecological balance (and possibly the extinction of other species). Many of these domesticated animals, even when they appear to be semi-wild, are dependent on humans and require considerable attention. Even hardy hill sheep still need to be dipped, wormed, and given supplementary winter feed.

Even among domesticated animals, the dog stands out as perhaps the only fully domesticated species. Goats are domesticated, and can be tame, but they rarely make intimate companions. Pigs probably could, if given half a chance. H. Hediger, the director of the Zoological Gardens of Zurich, writes that the dog, basically a domesticated wolf, was the first creature with which humans formed intimate bonds that were intense on both sides. According to Hediger, no other animal stands in such intimate psychological union with us; only the dog seems capable of reading our thoughts and "reacting to our faintest changes of expression or mood." German dog trainers use the term Gefuhlsinn (a feeling for feelings) to talk about the fact that a dog can sense our moods.

Voltaire, who knew about the emotions of dogs, used the example of a lost dog to refute the thesis of Descartes that dogs are merely machines, incapable of any kind of suffering. He responded to Descartes in his Dictionnaire philosophique with:

Judge this dog who has lost his master, who has searched for him with mournful cries in every path, who comes home agitated, restless, who runs up and down the stairs, who goes from room to room, who at last finds his beloved master in his study, and shows him his joy by the tenderness of cries, by his leaps, by his caresses. Barbarians seize this dog who so prodigiously surpasses man in friendship. They nail him to a table and dissect him alive to show you the mesenteric veins. You discover in him all the same organs of feeling that you possess. Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal in order that he should not feel? Does he have nerves to be impassive?

It is one of the main themes of this book that the reason why humans and dogs have such an intense relationship is that there is a mutual ability to understand one another's emotional responses. The joie de vivre of a dog may be greater than our own, but it is immediately recognizable as a feeling that we humans enjoy as well. The closeness between dogs and people is taken for granted and, at the same time, seen as something immensely mysterious. Naturally I feel close to my dogs, but who are these dogs? They are Sima, Sasha, and Rani, of course, that much is simple and obvious. Yet I will often look at them lying in my study as I work on this book and be overwhelmed with a sense of otherness. Just who are these beings lying here, so close to me, and yet also so remote? They are easily grasped, and they are unfathomable. I know them as well as I know my closest friend, and yet I have no idea who they are.

This ambiguity, which includes a certain ambivalence as well, has been memorialized in our speech, in our sayings, and in our tributes to and about dogs. Sir John Davies, in his epigram In Cineam (written in 1594), observed:

Thou sayest thou art as weary as a dog,
As angry, sick, and hungry as a dog,
As dull and melancholy as a dog,
As lazy, sleepy, idle as a dog.
But why dost thou compare thee to a dog?
In that for which all men despise a dog,
I will compare thee better to a dog.
Thou art as fair and comely as a dog,
Thou art as true and honest as a dog,
Thou art as kind and liberal as a dog,
Thou art as wise and valiant as a dog.

Ever since Madame Roland said in the eighteenth century "Plus je vois les hommes, plus j'admire les chiens" (The more I see of men, the more I admire dogs), generally what has been written about dogs tends to be positive. Sometimes it is even wonderful, as in William James's statement "Marvelous as may be the power of my dog to understand my moods, deathless as is his affection and fidelity, his mental state is as unsolved a mystery to me as it was to my remotest ancestor." Or it may be delicious, like Ambrose Bierce's definition in his Devil's Dictionary, "Dog, n. A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world's worship." Samuel Coleridge, in Table-Talk (May 2, 1830), was one of the first to note that "the best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter ... may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to him ... may become traitors to their faith.... The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog."

When it comes to our sayings and our language, the use to which the word dog has been put shows a darker side. We speak of "going to the dogs" when we mean utter ruination. When men say of a woman that she is a dog, they mean nothing kind. Even used of a man, it suggests that he is contemptible. "To put on the dog" is to be a phony. "A dog's death" is the most miserable and shameful of ends. As long ago as the eighteenth century, "the black dog" on a man's back referred to depression. We criticize our own society when we speak of a "dog-eat-dog world," though this phrase may derive from its Latin opposite: Canis caninam non est, a dog does not eat another dog. One of the most evocative phrases of the English language was quoted by John Lyly in 1519 as being already an old saying: "The dogs may bark; the caravan goes on."

I take my dogs on five walks each day. People who know about us say that these dogs are living the perfect dog's life. Maybe we need to revamp our vocabulary so that leading a dog's life is what we want and going to the dogs is where we wish to go.

Joel Savishinsky, in an article on "Pet Ideas," notes the ambiguity in our language about dogs:

A winning individual is top dog; a handicapped or underrated person an underdog. Pathetic individuals lead a dog's life in a dog-eat-dog world. They suffer through the dog days of August, and when they confuse their priorities or do things in an inverted way, we think of it as the tail wagging the dog. A person who hogs resources which he himself cannot use is a dog in the manger. A damaged book is dog-eared, lousy poetry is doggerel, and a pathetic look is a hang-dog expression. The best we can say about a dutiful but uninspired worker is that he is dogged.

Nobody has written about this better than James Thurber in a piece that deserves full quotation:

Dogs may be Man's best friend, but Man is often Dog's severest critic, in spite of his historic protestations of affection and admiration.... He observes, cloudily, that this misfortune or that shouldn't happen to a dog, as if most slings and arrows should, and he describes anybody he can't stand as a dirty dog. He notoriously takes the names of the female dog and her male offspring in vain, to denounce blackly members of his own race. In all this disdain and contempt there is a curious streak of envy, akin to what the psychiatrists know as sibling rivalry. Man is troubled by what might be called the Dog Wish, a strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.

It is possible that we begrudge the dog his freedom to be exactly what he was meant to be: a dog. So often I will see Sasha or Rani or Sima roll over and over in thick green grass, with a look of sheer delight on their faces, and I will think they are doing exactly what a dog was meant to do. How much harder to say of ourselves that we are doing what a human was meant to do, especially as nobody knows what that is.

Setting aside what we think dogs are, what--or who--do dogs think we are? If we knew how we were represented in the dreams of dogs (for they do dream about us--see Chapter 10), we would have an answer. But we do not, and so we must use our knowledge of dog society to extrapolate. The general observation has always been: Dogs form packs; the leader of the pack is the strongest, wisest, and largest individual; a human being among dogs fits that description; ergo we are the leader of any dog pack. But there are a number of problems with this view. First, we really don't know all that much about hierarchy in dogs, although we think we do. We assume that dominance is a simple matter, but it is not, and we can never be certain what factors are involved, or even exactly what dominance is among dogs. Secondly, dogs are not stupid, and they certainly know that we are not dogs, or even superdogs. I do not believe (contrary to what some vets say) that a dog thinks a cat is a small dog. How they categorize them, I do not know, but I am confident they know they are not dogs.

Frances and Richard Lockridge find it easy to believe that a dog would like to be a man, in the same way as a man would like to cast himself in the image of God. In their book, Cats and People, they write that the ambition of a well-brought-up dog is to please his friend before himself: "He is demonstrative in displays of affection as many people are, and as almost all people would like others to be toward them; the dog leaves you no doubt where you stand and when he gives his devotion, as he does readily, he is apt to give it fulsomely, so that for a little while the meanest human can see himself godlike in the dog's beaming eyes."

Do dogs think of us as gods, powerful beings who cannot entirely be read? I think not, because the idea of a "god" comes from the way humans create gods: in our own image, only more powerful. Gods grant us wishes and decide our fate. It is true that dogs are entirely dependent on us when they are with us. We decide where to go, how long to stay, when to leave, what they can and cannot do.

Some people compare dogs with slaves. But does the fact that we have created an almost complete dependency in dogs make them similar to slaves? We should remember that dogs have no choice in the matter. The Stockholm syndrome, where the kidnapped fall in love with their jailers (sometimes well beyond the limits of their confinement), may well apply here. To a certain extent, we are the jailers of dogs, since any freedom they achieve must be acquired by wheedling it out of us. This is one good reason they learn to read us so well. Survival dictates that dogs learn about us and learn to play us to some extent. Dogs must learn to negotiate whatever freedom they achieve within the confines we assign them. They seem to accept this control we exercise over them as the way things are. Dogs who rebel we call problem dogs. Perhaps they are merely independent thinkers, wondering why they should accept the status quo.

Given the fascination almost all dogs feel for small children (it is mutual), what do dogs think small children are? Do they think, "Aha, this is more like it, they are like us"? Do they see the dependency? Is that what they see as the similarity? Is it the size? Or is it just part of neoteny; since they are like children to us, do they have a desire to be with "other" children?

One reason dogs play havoc with so many of our theories is that dogs do not have feelings toward all humans, only some. So a dog can be extremely aggressive toward some human beings and very gentle toward others. The famous protectiveness of the dog speaks for the distinctions dogs make: stranger/friend, master/enemy, etc. We must not forget that a dog is really a wolf, and thus is in much of its makeup and behavior a wild animal, albeit one that has allowed us to become a part of its world. This is something no other wild animal would ever do, even when they seem in some ways to respect humans.

For animals in the wild, humans are usually something dangerous and to be avoided. But not always. Killer whales, for example, seem to have an almost superstitious interest in us: There are no documented cases of killer whales killing a human without provocation, although they could easily do so. After all, they eat just about anything that moves in the ocean, even polar bears, so why not us? They seem to recognize some affinity.

That affinity may have to do with living as social beings in well-defined groups. In this way dogs, whales, and humans share much in common--although whales never show a desire to spend time with us over spending time with other whales. We could never become part of a killer-whale pod (which is one reason so little is known about killer whales). In fact, no other species has ever indicated that it regularly prefers the company of a human to that of members of its own species, with the single exception of the dog. While we have domesticated many animals, only the dog has domesticated us. The dog chooses us, not because it is confused about our identity, not because dogs think we are the marvel of creation, but merely because dogs love us. It is such an amazing fact, and so counterintuitive (so profoundly unlovable do we think we are) that almost nobody can accept it as fact. Dogs love us not only because we feed them, or walk them, or groom them, or protect them, but because we are fun. How astonishing!
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