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Emotional Health & Dogs

Emotional health is as important for dogs as it is for people. For many years, we have been told not to attribute emotions to dogs and to do so is a deadly sin. A sin known as anthropomorphism. As we have got to know the canine species scientifically, over the last few years, we have been able to attribute some emotions in dogs that were previously dismissed.

To fully understand the facts and theory of canine emotion we must first look at emotion itself. Purely because we have more awareness of emotion as experienced by humans, the following is based on human emotions and how they work.

Whilst we know quite a lot about human emotions, we still do not know why we experience them. There are some mysteries and different psychology perspectives have different theories of emotion. Emotions are not thoughts, nor are they feelings, but they do lead to thoughts and feelings when they occur.

Daniel Goleman, in his work on emotional intelligence, refers to emotional hijacking. This, for people, is based in the amygdala. When we experience a rush of any type of emotion, the brain enters a refractory period where we have little control. This is the point when other parts of the brain are working out what to do.

We know that the amygdala is the brain area associated with a rush of emotion. This tiny, almond sized area in the brain is responsible for signalling emotional responses, along with storing emotional memory to an extent. This is the area of the brain that has a lot of responsibility, where emotional learning is concerned. The response associated with classical conditioning takes place in the amygdala and if it is damaged or not functioning properly, the fear response will be slower or non-existent.

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which is the first area of the brain that is believed to have evolved in humans. The limbic system is considered the feeling and highly reactive area of the human brain, though it can be trained. Whilst the frontal cortex developed later in our evolution, which is considered the thinking and logical area of our brain.

The rush of input from the amygdala is often linked to fear. When we were not as safe as we are now, physically, this would have served us well. It is believed that we also evolved to be biased towards fearing first and thinking later, in a process known as the negative bias. This is based on the idea that it was once much healthier to think a rock was a predator than it was to think the predator were a rock.

We know that the human and canine brains are similar, that dog’s brains have all the same areas related to emotion as we do, yet we have little proof as to how much emotion along with what specific emotions our dogs experience, but we do have some.

Before we move on to looking at canine emotions, it’s important to understand that similar brains and brain areas do not provide factual evidence that dogs feel emotions in the same way as people, or even experience the same emotions. Consider now that the range of emotions is different in people, yet our brains are pretty much the same. Empathy for instance, is present in many people, but some don’t seem to have much at all. Psychological problems in people can be related to emotional dysfunction and no two people will be the same, with the same emotional lives.

So, if we can’t be sure about the emotional capacity of individual people, even when we share so many similarities, and the ability to investigate via speech and observation in a much more detailed way about people, we certainly can’t be sure about the emotional lives of dogs. Nonetheless we can look towards the work of some exceptional scientists, who have explored the topic in great deal during recent times.

Stefanie Riemer and colleagues at the Animal Behaviour, Cognition and Welfare Research department at Lincoln University carried out some research on how dog’s ears reacted to scenarios which may elicit an emotional response.

Several dogs were tested via infrared thermography, to consider a theory of ear heat and emotional changes. The basis of the study is that a fearful, stressed or unhappy dog will experience a rush of blood away from the extremities and into the muscles, this would aid fight or flight and naturally cool the extremities. Yet a relieved, happy or relaxed dog would experience natural blood flow again, which meant the ears would warm up.

The following is quoted from Scientific American Magazine.

“The six pairs of ears in the study “performed” as expected: ear temperature showed a pattern of decreasing when dogs were alone, suggesting “that isolation stress is associated with reduced ear temperature"; when reunited with people (the good stuff), ear temperatures increased. Under the watchful eye of infrared thermography, ear temperature could be used to assess positive or negative affective states in dogs in other—less straightforward—contexts”

We can’t possibly talk about canine emotion without also taking some time to look at the ongoing work of Gregory Berns. Berns has developed a forward-thinking study path for understanding the brain of the dog. Along with a team of volunteers he created the dog project, which explored the brain of the dog whist the animal was awake, through positive reinforcement training. The dog project has brought forth a variation of findings on canine cognition and emotion.

“Five scents were presented (self, familiar human, strange human, familiar dog, strange dog). While the olfactory bulb/peduncle was activated to a similar degree by all the scents, the caudate was activated maximally to the familiar human. Importantly, the scent of the familiar human was not the handler, meaning that the caudate response differentiated the scent in the absence of the person being present. The caudate activation suggested that not only did the dogs discriminate that scent from the others, they had a positive association with it. This speaks to the power of the dog's sense of smell, and it provides important clues about the importance of humans in dogs’ lives”

The book How Dogs Love Us by Gregory Berns, is also a fascinating read.

Canine emotion is inspiring and the actual research for it is ongoing. We have learned far more about dogs in the last three decades than in many years before. We will certainly continue to learn about how dogs feel, the current scientific fascination with dogs is fantastic for all of us that love and want to understand them better.

If you're interested in learning more about current research on canine cognition click below.



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