An excerpt from THROUGH A DOG'S EYES
by Jennifer Arnold
Chapter Seven: EMOTION
The request to see Dr. Nick, as the children called him, came early on a Monday. An eight- year- old boy in Phoenix had fallen off his skateboard and was clinging to life. Dr. Nick, with his old black medical bag, was on the next flight from Atlanta to Phoenix. It was my privilege to accompany him on this trip, as I had on many trips in the past. It was an experience that profoundly changed the way I understood the emotional life of dogs.
Because Nick had been trained as a service dog, he had legal access to places other dogs could not go. So, while the child's own dog was not permitted in the Phoenix hospital, Nick was welcomed. He was there on a mission so tragic it still hurts to this day. He was there to help this precious little boy die.
The child had no brain function. His stricken parents knew it was time to allow the life- sustaining machines to be turned off. The boy loved his parents mightily, but his best friend on earth was his dog. Because his dog was not allowed to be with him as he died, his parents had asked for Nick.
As soon as Nick entered the hospital room, he dropped his bag, carefully maneuvered himself around the tubes and wires, and jumped gently up onto the bed to lie quietly against the boy's side. I never gave him any direction; Nick just did what he instinctively knew to do. He stayed on the bed without moving for more than two and a half hours. Sometime during that afternoon, the boy's mother asked those of us in the room if we had put her son's arm around Nick. We told her that we had not, but indeed the child's left arm was now draped loosely across Nick's big neck. Nick had nuzzled himself there. When the child was pronounced dead, his devastated mother broke. Her wail was unlike any noise I had ever heard. Without even seeming to displace the sweet little arm across him, Nick managed in one move to fling himself into the mother's arms. Together they stayed huddled, as if on a life raft, until the mother was led into an empty room nearby.
The nurses thanked Nick and me for coming and told us we were free to leave. In something much like shock, I stumbled to the elevator with Nick walking proudly beside me. I can remember being relieved to see that he had made it through the ordeal without too much visible trauma. But as soon as the elevator doors closed and the two of us were alone, Nick collapsed to the floor with a moan. He remained there as the elevator doors opened into the lobby. No amount of encouragement or bribery made him move. He did not look at me but rather through me, with glassy, vacant eyes. I started to worry.
With the help of a hospital intern, we carried Nick to my rental car and placed him gently on the backseat. In my heart, I felt like his reaction was one of grief, but my brain kept reminding me that he was a dog and I shouldn't anthropomorphize his response. How could he understand what had happened? If dogs are motivated only by seeking pleasure and having their own needs met, then why would Nick be so overwhelmingly sad? That little boy and his family meant nothing in terms of Nick's life.
Fearing he had suffered a stroke, I phoned a nearby veterinary clinic. A young vet helped me get Nick into a clinic exam room and, as I relayed the events of the afternoon to her, she proceeded to examine him. She found nothing wrong with him physically. He even stood up for her and finally walked with me back to the car. As the veterinarian followed us, she explained that Nick was perhaps upset because he knew I had been distressed. That would fit right in with the concept that dogs worry only about what might affect them, I thought. She explained that there really was no way to tell if a dog was truly feeling emotion. We could only describe the dog's behavior but could not speculate as to any inner feelings that might be causing the behavior.
I started to leave, not completely persuaded by her explanation but at least confident that Nick wasn't physically ill. I could see by the look on her face that she wasn't convinced by her textbook answers either. So I wasn't surprised to see her raised arm as I began to drive off, signaling me to stop. She leaned in and looked again at Nick in the backseat. Then she confided that her gut instinct was that Nick was experiencing grief for the child, the family, or both, and his behavior wasn't about his concern for me, at least not exclusively. She went on to say that I should be careful about putting him in such emotion- laden situations in the future, since he seemed to feel things so deeply. At least, she said-ever the scientist-his behavior indicated as much.
Trying to be a "true professional" when I started Canine Assistants, I was very careful not to credit dogs with any abilities or capacities not scientifically proven. I was so afraid of being perceived as an overly emotional dog person that I refused to open my mind. Well, as usual, Nick and the other dogs opened it for me. I began to realize that many things I know to be true haven't yet been proven scientifically. Of course Nick had been sad. I knew that in my heart all along. He had looked sad. His body literally sagged under the weight of his grief. He may have been concerned about me too, but he was undoubtedly experiencing his own intense emotions.
Time has taught me that dogs, like humans, are emotional creatures. Just watch a dog whose beloved owner returns home from a trip-the dog jumps for joy.
Will it ever be possible for us believers to prove that dogs experience emotions? Well, yes and no. As Patricia McConnell says in her fabulous book For the Love of a Dog, "Emotions are slippery things." She is absolutely correct. Does your spouse have emotions? How do you know? Can you actually experience what he is experiencing internally? If not, then how can you know for certain that he has emotions? Of course, it's simple: You ask him. Therein lies the problem with animal emotions. Not only can we not experience what they experience emotionally, we can't ask them what they're feeling. However, we can exercise a little common sense. With the rise of ethology-the study of animal behavior-scientists began to allow for what actually causes behavior: emotion. Behavior problems are the number- one cause of preventable death-euthanasia-for dogs under three years of age in the United States. Dogs have emotions. Emotions cause them to behave in certain ways. We must understand the source and catalysts of emotion before we can hope to deal successfully with behavioral problems that result from it.
Dr. McConnell explains that every emotional experience includes changes in the body, changes in expression, and thoughts or feelings that go along with them. The scenario: A man is pointing a gun at Nick as I stand next to him. The threat is real and my body floods with norepinephrine, a stress hormone that affects the part of the brain controlling action; I prepare for "fight or flight." My expression changes, my eyes widen, and my pupils dilate. I'm thinking to myself, Oh, God, Nick is going to get shot. I reach out and pull Nick to safety. This simple short scene illustrates that emotions do precipitate a range of action, from subtle eye gestures to racing heartbeats to sweeping body movements. Researchers used to believe that as our senses registered something-a charging bear, for example-we would experience an emotion, and that emotion would cause changes in our body, expression, and thoughts. Some experts now speculate that that theory was backward, believing instead that as we register sensory data that causes changes to our body and mind, we then feel the fear. I see a man with a gun turn toward my beloved dog, my body chemistry changes, my eyes widen in horror, and I think, Oh, no! Only after all of that do I feel fear.
It is counterintuitive to claim that emotion doesn't affect animals. After all, how long would a species survive without being able to experience fear? More and more experts are starting to agree. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Colorado- Boulder, says in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals: "It is bad biology to argue against the existence of animal emotions."
Darwin unquestionably believed that animals have emotions, and many experts still concur that what Darwin termed the "universal emotions" of fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and happiness are indeed the primary emotions. These are the emotions that require no conscious thought to experience, since they are born with us, hardwired into our systems.
The "triune model" from neurologist Paul MacLean suggests that we have three separate brains representing different levels of evolution. The lowest level is the reptilian brain, shared by everything from snakes and fish on up the evolutionary ladder to the very top. In addition, mammals have a paleomammalian, or limbic, brain. Finally, the more highly evolved species like man and dog have a top level known as the cerebral cortex, the thinking part of the brain that is far larger in man than in any other species. Though there may be multiple "emotion systems" in an individual's brain, primary emotions are connected to the limbic system and thus to the limbic brain shared by all mammals.
Still, some behaviorists assert that emotions are a mere reflexive process in animals other than humans. According to them, animals can experience emotions but they cannot think about them. Accordingly, Nick could experience sadness but not grief, since that would require he understand something about life and the lack thereof. That argument is understandable-dogs do not have the same large cerebral cortex as man, and therefore some secondary emotions that involve understanding are too complex for a dog's smaller cognitive capacity. I, however, disagree that dogs are incapable of experiencing secondary emotions.
Disappointment is a secondary emotion requiring an unfulfilled expectation. In order to feel disappointed, there must be anticipation. To anticipate, one must have the capacity to think about the future; to feel disappointment, one has to realize intellectually that the anticipated event did not and will not occur. This is a relatively sophisticated concept.Yet I have never met a dog owner who does not believe their dog feels disappointment. Who hasn't seen big brown eyes looking balefully at them when an important phone call postpones a planned walk in the park? Nick had the best disappointed face ever. Big rolls of skin would droop down as he pointed his nose toward the ground. His beautiful eyes would stare at me reproachfully from under his furrowed brow. His body language spoke clearly: "You let me down."
But, conversely, did he worry about disappointing me? And if he did, did he feel remorse? Remorse and its big brother, guilt, are advanced emotions. Experiencing them necessitates an understanding of a moral code and what it means to violate that code. I think dogs can understand some of our human moral code, but only the parts that overlap with their own.
Dogs have an ancestral code of moral conduct. Wolves have strict social rules. Some of those rules are easy to identify in dogs today. For example, dogs practice the concept of possession being nine- tenths of the law-though with dogs, it is more like possession is ten- tenths of the law. The most timid member of a dog family will growl and snap even at a more dominating dog in defense of a chew bone, and the bolder dog knows better than to try to take the bone away from the one chewing it-at least not by force. Trickery, which Jack sometimes uses to take Butch's toys, seems to be acceptable. But after the bone is all gone, the more timid dog will often make gestures that acknowledge the other dog's dominance, such as face licking and submissive rolling. These actions could be considered apologetic, though they seem more likely to be an attempt to avoid later reprimand.
Dogs worry about keeping humans happy, so they go to extraordinary measures to avoid upsetting us-within the framework of their own understanding. That, though, is the limit of their capacity to experience guilt or remorse. I realize some people may disagree with me, citing examples of a dog behaving sheepishly in front of its owner before a misdeed is even discovered. Surely, they contend, this is evidence of guilt. Well, I don't believe it is, unless it pertains to some rule of conduct shared by both species. It is far more likely, for example, that the dog remembers that his owner got upset previously when he came home to find that the sofa cushions had been destroyed.
Jealousy, on the other hand, is a secondary emotion that dogs clearly experience. Remember how Jack cons Butch into leaving his toy by pretending there are people at the front door? What is at the root of that behavior for Jack if not jealousy? It is jealousy that causes one dog to bump another out of the way of your stroking hand.
Nick and I traveled a tremendous amount together, and he became a true veteran of the Atlanta International Airport, frequently cited as the busiest in the world. Due to a serious personal flaw of mine-perpetual tardiness-Nick always ran when we were in the airport. Always. We would pass through the airport doors and off we would go, a big yellow dog running, with me gracelessly trying to keep up. As we reached the security checkpoint, Nick would fling his bag (he usually carried his own luggage) onto the conveyor belt, bolt through the metal detector, and retrieve his bag on the other side. By the time Nick and I reached the underground train, I'd be a sweaty, exhausted mess.
One day I failed to hold on to the handrail, as the mechanical voice demands prior to announcing that the vehicle is leaving the station. The warning is well deserved. When I fell, my purse spilled and my stuff rolled everywhere-a truly embarrassing moment. I glanced over at Nick to make sure he was okay, since I had also dropped his leash. He was staring passively out the window of the train, some twenty feet away from me, acting as if we had never met before. It was so obvious that Nick was embarrassed by my misstep that the man who helped me up even noted, "Looks like your dog is pretending not to know you."
While dogs experience many of the same emotions as humans, they don't necessarily experience these emotions the same way that we do. I cannot tell you what Nick's exact feelings were about the death of the little boy. I can only note that he was profoundly affected emotionally by the event and that whatever he felt went far beyond simple reflex.
At Canine Assistants, I have seen many compelling examples of what can only be described as dogs grieving. It is devastatingly sad when any of our assistance dogs die. Their human partners are, of course, bereft. But somehow the people manage to keep going, to regain their balance and move on. That is not always the case when the circumstances are reversed. When working dogs lose their owners, the dogs often fall to pieces, refusing to eat or even participate in other activities of daily living. There have been anecdotal reports of service dogs who have quite literally grieved themselves to death.
The depth of their feelings suggests that the cognitive limitations of dogs may make them experience emotions much more strongly. Consider your feelings about the death of someone close to you; you are sad but you console yourself intellectually. Dogs do not appear to have that level of intellectual flexibility. When dogs feel emotion, they feel it largely without the tempering filter of higher thought.
This is an important factor when considering whether or not our dogs actually love us. Many people seem to think the ability to love requires a higher spirituality possessed only by humans. Consider this quote from Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn: "To my mind, true love requires the sort of wisdom and conceptual thinking dogs are simply incapable of." In my opinion, he has it backward. It is the very wisdom of humans that makes love so difficult for us and the relative simplicity of dogs that makes their love so intense.
Unromantic as it may be, a great deal of love is chemical. Dopamine, released during pleasurable activities, causes us to feel an emotion, usually associated with falling in love. Oxytocin is the hormone that maintains those warm feelings as love matures. Oxytocin is what bonds mothers to their children. Patricia McConnell describes it as "a one- size- fits- all hormone mediating love and attachment in all social relationships that involve feelings of care and connection." From a biological standpoint, the entire process is rudimentary and well within the grasp of dogs. Their brains, too, produce the necessary dopamine and oxytocin.
Experiencing great emotion without the ability to cognitively work through it must be extremely stressful for dogs, causing emotions to run amok and creating problems such as separation anxiety. Some researchers, including McConnell, believe that dogs can suffer post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), wherein the memory of an emotionally traumatic event becomes itself traumatic. Those who suffer from PTSD are often hypersensitive to stimuli that are related- in even the most remote manner-to whatever caused the original trauma. This hyperreactivity stems from changes in stress hormones and in the neural pathways through which the stimulus is processed.
At Canine Assistants, a number of dogs have developed extreme hypersensitivity to noises. The problem usually begins with exposure to a startlingly loud noise, such as fireworks or balloons popping. Once the issue has been established, these dogs can become highly sensitive to even the slightest of sounds. One dog, Hershey, became so stressed by noises that the very click of the joystick on his recipient's wheelchair would send him running under the bed. Luckily, Hershey responded well to a gradual desensitizing program of medication and behavior modification, as do most other dogs.
As any veterinarian can attest, dogs can develop significant stress- related problems. Both people and dogs attempt to alleviate stress in the same manner, using what are known as displacement behaviors in order to cope. Since displacement behaviors in dogs are usually ones that humans consider misbehaviors, the more we know about stress and its effect on dogs, the better we can understand their coping processes.
There are three different categories of stress:
1. Eustress is called positive stress. This is stress you can do something about. If you are excessively hungry, you feel stress. If eating satisfies that hunger, then the stress was eustress. Eustress is positive because it helps keep us alive and encourages success. 2. Neutral stress is neither positive nor negative. The television is somewhat loud, but if it doesn't bother you enough to turn it down, the stress it creates remains neutral. 3. Distress is harmful stress. If you are starving and there is no way for you to get food, you are in distress. Distress has a negative impact on dogs and people both physically and mentally. The effects of distress are both immediate and long-lasting.
Since eustress is quickly resolved and neutral stress has no impact, it is distress in dogs, as it is in humans, that causes the most significant problems. There are a number of things that can affect dogs to the point of distress, including being left alone, hearing loud noises, fear of not pleasing their owners, and even boredom.
How can you tell if your dog is feeling stress? We must rely on our dogs' behaviors or, more precisely, their displacement behaviors to alert us. Common displacement behaviors in dogs include compulsively chewing on themselves or on objects, eliminating inappropriately in small amounts randomly throughout the house, obsessively digging holes outside, pacing, and chronic barking. Dogs may display these behaviors for a number of reasons, so it is important to analyze circumstances carefully to determine the cause. For example, if your dog pees a puddle by your back door, it isn't necessarily stress. It's possible he just needed to go to the bathroom and couldn't get outside.
If you are concerned that your dog is experiencing distress, it is first important to determine what emotion is causing the stress. Currently, much of dog training is focused on making a dog stop doing something we don't want him to do, without much thought given to why he is doing it in the first place. While this may provide a quick fix, it does not solve the issue for the long run. Imagine a water balloon filled to near capacity. If you keep adding water to the balloon without allowing some of the existing water to be released, the balloon will soon explode under the pressure. Now imagine that, instead of a water balloon, we are talking about a dog filled with negative stress. The displacement behaviors act like tiny pinholes, allowing some of the pressure to be reduced. If we plug the pinholes but allow stress to continue building, the dog is going to blow, somewhere, somehow. The dog may begin to chew holes in his own leg or suddenly bite for no apparent reason, or end up dying earlier than necessary. Stress has the same deleterious physical effect on dogs as it does on humans.
Figure out what is causing your dog to feel stressed and, if possible, eliminate the cause. For example, if boredom is creating stress for your dog because you must leave him alone for long periods, stop feeding him from a bowl and start stuffing his food into a Kong or similar toy, creating a long- lasting, time- occupying distraction. Mixing the food with low- fat cottage cheese and freezing it overnight can make it an even longer- lasting project. At Canine Assistants, we advise our service- dog recipients to feed their dogs in this manner, encouraging the animals to be still and quiet for extended periods of time.
If you cannot eliminate the stress, try giving your dog an alternative acceptable displacement behavior, a nondestructive pinhole. Maybe chewing on a rawhide would calm your dog even more than chewing on your shoes. Try more exercise to see if that provides him with adequate stress relief. Finally, if your dog is having a serious stress issue that you cannot seem to alleviate, take him to your veterinarian and explain the situation. If your vet doesn't seem interested or able to help with the problem, ask for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. Don't be afraid to try medication if that is what your doctor recommends. Sometimes it is the only way to mitigate serious stress. Make no mistake, stress in your dog takes its toll. Do whatever is necessary to make your dog's life as stress- free as possible. After all, how is he going to help assuage your stress if he's busy trying to cope with his own?
Dogs are dependent upon us for their very survival, and that dependency can make them emotionally vulnerable. It is up to us to show them that we will meet their physical needs. But dogs also need to be shown that they can and do please us. Failing to assure them of that would be every bit as devastating for our dogs as failing to feed them.
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