Tuesday, February 16, 2010


It’s not unheard of to hear a person who owns a dog say that he and his dog have formed a bond or an attachment to one another. Even more common to hear is someone saying that their dog is their best friend. Have we attached human emotions that we feel to our dogs? Do dogs really feel emotions or do they respond to their human owners by instinct?

The dictionary defines emotions as a heightened feeling – a strong feeling about somebody or something. Instinct is described as a biological drive – an inborn pattern of behavior characteristic of a species and shaped by biological necessities such as survival and reproduction.

The limbic system of the brain is the location of emotionally charged memories. An animal that is traumatized shows many of the same physiological signals in the brain as a human who has been traumatized with the same symptoms. An animal can show the same behavioral and physiological signs of depression as a human does. So similar are these signs that vets have prescribed human drugs for animal’s emotional and behavioral problems, such as Prozac, Zoloft and Paxil. The animal’s chemical neurotransmitters are the same as humans. Their hormones are similar. The same hormones perform the same functions – oxytocin, for example initiates maternal bonding of tenderness, affection and protectiveness that all mammal species feel, including humans. We can interpret this to mean that the tenderness or grief over the loss of a loved one is real whether it’s felt by a human or an animal. The distress or pain of a baby of any species, the need to nurture and protect this young one evokes a motherly response across all the animal kingdom.

Dogs are considered social animal’s comfortable living in a pack. Therefore, it is necessary for them to use their intelligence and instincts to survive and maintain order. They learn to interact in their pack, and respect their pack leader who is considered the alpha dog.

Living among humans, the dog has adapted to their owner as being the alpha or leader. Some might say that the dog acts out of instinct towards his human leader. This is where he gets his food and shelter. But if given the same equal amount of food and shelter from someone else, they would still want to stay with the original owner because of the emotional bond with this person. So could one conclude then that the dog acted out of emotions rather than instinct?

The dog stands out among other domesticated animals for he is perhaps the only one that is fully domesticated of the different species. H.Hediger, the director of the Zoological Gardens of Zurich, writes that the dog, basically a domesticated wolf, was the first creature with which humans formed intimate bonds that were intense on both sides. He continues that no other animal stands in such intimate psychological union with us; only the dog seems capable of reading our thoughts and “reacting to our faintest changes of expression or mood.” So one must never forget that a dog is really a wolf and his instincts are that of a wild animal, but one that has allowed man to become part of his world. This is something that no other wild animal would ever do, even when they seem in some ways to trust and respect man.

Another fascinating fact about the dog is that no other species of animals has shown that it prefers the company of man to that of his own species. If given a choice, the dog would choose man.

Samuel Coleridge was one of the first to note that “the best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter….may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to him….may become traitors to their faith….The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.”

One emotion that all animals have in common is the emotion of fear. It is after all the emotion that’s most important to survival. And what about the emotions that some say that dogs display? Dogs have been known to whine and carry on hysterically when left alone. When their owner returns, they show joy by circling around and around, tail wagging happily and jumping up to plant a sloppy kiss on his cheek. One dog will show jealousy when you are petting another dog by pushing his body between the two of you so he’ll get all your attention. What about the dog that has been abused and beat up? Is it fear that we see in his big sorrowful brown eyes when someone raises a hand or voice around him? Is it fear when his body involuntarily begins to quiver and shake? Then there’s the issue of forgiveness. If the dog is shown the least bit of kindness from a new person, his great big heart will shower the new person with an abundance of affection forgetting it was a person who caused him so much pain to begin with. And what about grief? Do you think a dog can feel this emotion? Is it grief he feels when his owner has died and he no longer feels the comfort of his hand stroking his neck? Is it grief a mother dog feels when her litter of puppies dies at two weeks old from a virus? She searches unsuccessfully to find them and she physically becomes sick? Emotions or instinct?

Scientists like to avoid this subject pertaining to dogs and emotions. After all, emotions are contributed to the human being and isn’t this what sets the human apart from the dog? To say that the dog could experience emotions that were only considered a human feeling would change everything we were taught to believe. Aren’t we “way up here” and they’re way down there?” Aren’t we at the top of the hierarchy of the animal kingdom?

One thing is for certain, anyone who owns a dog knows that man could never love completely, totally and unselfishly as a dog does. The dog is incapable of holding grudges. There’s purity to his love. He loves blindly. It is rare for a human to love with so much abandonment and forgiveness as a dog. The author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson wrote in his book “Dogs Never Lie about Love” that “dogs are love.” So the question shouldn’t be whether dogs love, but rather how they can love with such a complete and enormous surrender of self.

The love humans feel for one another can turn to hate and distrust when the first blush of affection subsides. Sometimes loving someone doesn’t survive through a growing friendship when one is truly known. When the true person is revealed, is when the emotions felt for another is tested. For a person to love someone who has done them wrong is very difficult. The dog loves a person no matter if his true colors show deceit, weaknesses or unkindness. This is probably the biggest reason we call our dogs our best friends, because we know when it comes to love, our canine friends are the teachers and we become the students.

This is why man loves his dog so much. The dog loves him no matter what the scale shows his weight to be, no matter how old he is, no matter what mood or disposition he’s in – tired, weak, strong, indifferent or foul of temperament. Many a person carries on a conversation with their dog. The dog seems to sense when he is sad, or glad. They respond to his every mood. They listen to him when no one else cares to. Man never fears being judged the fool. His dog thinks he’s wonderful just the way he is. The dog then has an amazing capacity for an unlimited amount of love towards his master which comes naturally to him. This is perhaps why the man and his dogs love and affection lasts a lifetime. This is the kind of love that humans hope to have with each other, but sadly most only experience in the movies.

As science looks more in to the study of dogs and emotions, there are uncomfortable issues that we face about our domesticated friends. We are forced to face as a society what part we play in the treatment of these animals that are born with the capability to soften even the most hardened heart. For if indeed, our dogs have emotional feelings similar to mans, what does this say about how man treats these creatures? After all, not all dogs are domesticated and pampered. Some live their lives in cages, while others are used for experimentation. Some are bred every season; some from their first season to their last and then when they are all used up, they’re destroyed.

So then what can be concluded about this most unselfish of animals known as the domesticated dog? If he can feel emotions like man who experiences love, grief, loss, jealousy, fear, and joy, should he be any less recognized and respected? Because man has superior intellect it should stand to reason that we would treat the dog who shares a similar emotional make-up to us with dignity and care. For the loving heart of a dog is ours for the taking to do with as little as we want or as much as we like. Treat it with care. Man should wish that he could only live up to be what his dog thinks of him.

For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend - From her book, the author says....."Don't fool yourself: if you yell at your dog for something he did twenty seconds ago, you're not training him; you're merely expressing your own anger."

My rating: For the Love of a Dog: (4)

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