Originally published in slightly different form on April 27, 2009 at PsychologyToday.com.
Our desires are very important to our dogs. It’s part of what feeds them, emotionally. And it’s where the old canard that “dogs want to please their owners” comes from. Dogs don’t actively set out to try to please us. That would require having a Theory of Mind, which dogs don’t have. What they do have is the ability to experience—on a very real, very palpable physical level—what other members of their group are feeling and experiencing in-the-moment. Watch dogs at play sometime. When one dog is really into a game with a dog he likes, it’s almost as if the two are connected magnetically.
To understand this ability dogs have, and how it’s so often misunderstood or misinterpreted by many dog trainers and even scientists, there was a study done recently at the “Clever Dogs Lab” in Austria, purporting to show that dogs are capable of knowing when they’re being treated unfairly.
The dogs, who had already been taught to give paw for a treat, were divided up in pairs. The researchers set up a pattern of rewarding the dogs with bits of sausage (or bread) for obeying the “give paw” command. Then after a while, the researchers deliberately stopped rewarding one of the two dogs. When this happened the unrewarded pooch stopped cooperating, and even showed signs of unhappiness in terms of facial expressions and body language, which the researchers eagerly interpreted to mean that the dogs felt as if they’d been treated unfairly. Why else would they look so glum?
I’ll tell you why: because they had been engaged in a group activity and were suddenly excluded from it. When the feeling of desire is strong in dogs, and there’s a group dynamic going on, they feel unindividuated, as if they’re at one with the other dog, at one with the researcher, and at one with the bits of sausage or bread. (This is the way dogs feel when they’re playing together or playing with us.) This unindividuated state of desire, especially when it’s a desire the dogs are confident is about to be fulfilled, is one of the most pleasant physical and emotional states they can experience. (And it probably relates in part to the production of oxytocin, as described in my recent article The “Love Hormone” - the Key to Canine Evolution, as well as The Most Manipulative of Species by Aaron Goetz and Kayla Causey.)
So to be in that enormously pleasurable state while giving paw with your pal and the researcher, and eating sausages and bread together, and then to have the researcher suddenly exclude you from the game; it’s like being punched in the gut or having the rug pulled out from under you. You go from feeling totally connected, both emotionally and physically, to feeling totally separated, isolated, and alone. And according to a 2003 study done at UCLA, feelings of social exclusion are registered in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same part of the brain that controls physical pain. This is why separation anxiety is so strong in most dogs who have it. They’re not just lonely, they’re feeling actual physical pain.
So during the course of the study done in Austria, when the dogs’ feelings of connectedness were suddenly squelched, and they were denied the completion of their desire, they went from a feeling of “Isn’t this great! We’re giving paw! We’re eating sausage!” to suddenly being told, “Get out, go away! You don’t belong!” And that’s why they exhibited that sad body language and those glum looks on their faces. Their reaction wasn’t, “Hey, that’s not fair!” but “Ow! That hurts!”
It’s been my observation that dogs have two ways of interacting with us and other dogs. One is where they’re in a group mood, and the other is when they’re kind of flying solo. They’re like emotional photons in this way: sometimes they behave like an emotional particle (individuated, separate, alone) and sometimes they’re more wave-like (unindividuated, totally connected, in a state of flow).
So when we try to understand our dogs’ ways of feeling the world, it means a lot to them. It makes them feel even more connected to us emotionally than they already do. And the more emotionally connected a dog feels to his owners, the happier and more obedient and responsive he’ll be. It’s automatic.
But don’t just take my word for it. Try it for yourself and see.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
Join Me on Facebook!
Follow Me on Twitter!
Join the Rescue Dog Owners Support Group!