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Run-on sentience: Are we going way overboard in attributing emotions to dogs?

Lately, it seems, hardly a month goes by without either some viral video or paper-writing scientist suggesting that — contrary to what scientists and the media think we think — dogs feel emotions much like our own, or at least a doggy version of them.

If it’s not a video, like the one above  – which is being described in the news media as a dog not just feeling remorse, but atoning for his misdeed —  it’s a new scientific paper proclaiming, yes, dogs do feel … you name it … joy, fear, anger, guilt, pride, compassion, love, shame.

(If you didn’t already think dogs feel joy, you may not be the world’s most perceptive person.)

(Some, apparently, get so overwhelmed by it that they pass out.)

This month’s emotion? Jealousy.

Dr. Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego — after a study involving dogs, their owners, stuffed animals,  jack-o’-lantern and children’s books – concluded that dogs showed a “primordial” form of jealousy, meaning, I guess, not as evolved, twisted, complex, nasty and, sometimes, fatal as the human form.

According to an article in the New York Times, the dog version of jealousy is “not as complex as the human emotion, but similar in that there is a social triangle and the dog is trying to make sure it, not the rival, receives the attention.”

In the study, as it’s described in a a PLoS One paper co-written by Harris, researchers compared the reactions of dogs when their owners petted and talked to a jack-o’-lantern, read a children’s book aloud, and petted and talked to a stuffed toy dog that barked and whined.

The dogs paid little attention to the jack-o’-lantern or the book. But when dog owners petted and talked to the stuffed dog, their dogs reacted, coming over, pushing their noses into the owner or stuffed dog, sometimes barking, and sniffing the rear end of the stuffed dog.

I’m not sure that’s proof of jealousy — it could just be proof that dogs are smart enough to investigate when humans are trying to dupe them. On top of that, most dogs have experience playing with stuffed toys, as opposed to plastic pumpkins and children’s books. So it’s not too astonishing they would have a more excited reaction to them.

SONY DSCIn that way, the findings of this study aren’t really too surprising, or revealing, but they are indicative, I think, of a trend — in the scientific community, in the news media, and among normal members of society — of seeing dogs more and more as humans.

The “dogs feel jealousy” study, for example — flimsy as its findings sound — was picked up by most major news organizations.

“Study: Jealousy Is So Universal Even Dogs Feel It,” reported the New York Times.

“Study: Dogs Can Feel Jealous, Too,” said a CNN headline.

At least NPR phrased their headline as a question: “Does Your Dog Feel Jealous, Or Is That A Purely Human Flaw?”

These days, the news media doesn’t need a legitimate study to draw sweeping conclusions; a viral video will do.

The video at the top of this post has been shared — if not actually reported on with any depth — on news websites from Alabama to India.

The headlines all presume to know what the beagle is feeling, and some go so far as to explain the goal of his behavior as well: “I’m Sorry! Charlie the guilty dog showers crying baby with gifts to apologize for stealing her toy,” reads the headline in The Daily Mail.

acecouchAmazing the conclusions reporters and headline writers can reach nowadays — and the mind reading they can do — usually without ever stepping away from their computer.

My problem is not with attributing emotions to dogs. I believe they have most of the ones we do, or at least most of the desirable ones. I believe they have other magical gifts and skills we haven’t even begun to figure out. I believe studying what’s going on in their heads is a good thing — at least when it’s done by dog experts. I can even handle a little anthropomorphization; given we’re humans we tend to interpret things in human terms.

What bothers me, for starters, is presenting such findings as new, when dog owners have known most of them all along. Sometimes, it’s as if scientists and the news media are saying, oh wait, we’ve discovered dogs are not unfeeling blobs of fur, after all. Well, duh.

The problem I have is not so much ascribing emotions to dogs as it is the vanity of assuming emotions are something only humans feel.

SONY DSCFeel free, scientists, to study jealousy in dogs. And feel free to study it in humans. And feel free to compare and contrast the two.

And feel free as well, video posters, to share your dog’s interesting and seemingly human-like behavior, and to offer any theories you might have.

But let’s not leap to wild conclusions, based on how things look through our human eyes. Let’s not forget that dogs have had emotions all along. Let’s not assume they are “catching up” with us in terms of their emotions and behaviors. Maybe they’ve been ahead of us all along.

And let’s not be so surprised — given the centuries man has been choreographing their evolution, and the half century or so they’ve been mostly living inside with us — that they’re picking up some of our habits, good and bad.

While we’re at it, let’s let dogs remain, at least in part, dogs.

Let’s keep in mind, during all this, what we can learn from them. Are dogs lagging behind us, in terms of developing a sense of jealousy, or are they exhibiting a purer form of what we homo sapiens have taken to ridiculous extremes?

And let’s at least keep our minds open to the possibility that, when it comes to what dog and man can learn from each other,  we may not always be the teachers, or the role models, in that equation.

(Photos: Ace in Monterey, California, at home on the couch, and with a panhandler in Portland, Maine; by John Woestendiek / ohmidog!)

Comments

Comment from Lynn (in Louisiana)
Time July 30, 2014 at 10:59 am

It’s great to see photos of Ace. He’s so handsome!

Comment from vida
Time August 1, 2014 at 5:15 pm

I find it hopeful in a lot of ways though. The study of emotions in animals has been going on for a long while, it’s only gotten any press lately and I hope it leads to more respect and better treatment by humans.

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