Best friend or fiend: Is your dog really being naughty?
Dogs can recognise and even feel a range of human feelings. But do they also have a conscience?
For many of us, dogs are important members of the family, and we want them to feel safe and loved. But how easy is it to tell how dogs are feeling, and to what extent do our reactions to them matter?
According to Ádám Miklósi at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, in the latest issue of Scientific American, humans are generally accurate when it comes to recognising very basic emotions in dogs – for example, happiness, anxiety and fear – and dogs, in turn, recognise those emotions in humans.
Furthermore, dogs often seek to ease human distress when they sense it, as Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer at Goldsmiths, University of London have shown.
They asked owners and a stranger to hum, talk or cry in the presence of 18 dogs. The dogs approached the humans more often when they cried, and licked, nuzzled and sniffed them.
But what about more complex emotions? For example, do dogs feel guilty?
Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College asked 14 owners to place meat on a table, tell their dogs not to eat it, and leave the room. A stranger then entered, and either took the meat away (so the dog couldn’t eat it and therefore “obeyed”) or offered it to the dog (tempting them to “disobey”, which they did). The owners then returned and scolded their dog if it disobeyed, or greeted it warmly if it obeyed. However, they told some owners the truth, while others were told their dog disobeyed when it hadn’t. All the dogs who were scolded – whether they’d disobeyed or not – took on the same “guilty” look.
Horowitz concluded that this look isn’t about appreciation of a misdeed, but is instead a response to owner behaviour.
Our dogs also appear sensitive to us in terms of how they behave when we leave them. We know from the work of Mary Ainsworth at Johns Hopkins University that young children are more likely to show distress – so-called separation anxiety – if their carers have been inconsistent or avoidant whenever the child needed comforting.
Veronika Konok and colleagues at Eötvös Loránd wanted to know if this might also be true for dogs. They questioned 1,508 owners about their personality, the way they reacted to other people, and whether their dogs appeared to have separation anxiety. They found owners who were avoidant in human relationships – that is, less likely to respond when others reached out to them – were more likely to have dogs who showed strong separation anxiety.
Of course, this is only an association, as Konok is quick to point out. It doesn’t prove that dogs respond exactly like babies. Anyway, other factors such as genetic predisposition may play a part as well.
It does suggest, however, that the way we behave affects our dogs’ anxiety levels.
The key? Interact with your dog just as you would a child, by responding calmly, lovingly and caringly when they seek your reassurance. However, don’t assume they feel regret.
Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of Siblings: How to Handle Rivalry to Create Lifelong Loving Bonds.
– © The Daily Telegraph