Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Science of Canine Emotions

Learn the science behind your dog's feelings.


Have you ever heard your dog's panting during play and thought it sounded like a chuckle? Turns out, you might be right! Researcher Patricia Simonet from Sierra Nevada College discovered that certain breathy, excited exhalations could be the canine version of laughter. Her team brought a parabolic microphone to a park and, from a distance, recorded the sounds that dogs made while playing. They discovered a special exhalation that was different from normal panting. Later, the team played the sound for other dogs who started to play after hearing the "laugh." They also discovered that it helped to calm shelter dogs who were under stress.


When you come home and find out your dog got into the trash again, you may find comfort in the fact that your dog "knows he is wrong" because he hides from you in shame. Unfortunately, canines don't make these kinds of rational connections. Instead, your dog is picking up on the change in your chemistry and body language and reacting to that. He knows you're upset, but he doesn't know why.


A researcher at the University of Vienna in Austria named Friederike Range discovered that dogs do have a sense of "fair play." Her team began with a group of dogs who already knew the command to "shake" and would give their paw whether they received a treat or not. However, if they saw that another dog received a piece of food for the behavior while they did not, they stopped! Dogs are not the only ones who are insulted when they aren't treated fairly. A similar experiment found that monkeys also become jealous if their peers were rewarded and they weren't. It is likely these behaviors resulted because both animals live in cooperative societies.


Dogs don't grieve in the same way that humans do, but they do experience sadness when a pack member passes away. If your family experiences a loss, your dog may react by displaying signs of distress: loss of appetite, fear, depression, sleeping too much or too little, and anxiety. In 1996, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals conducted a Companion Animal Mourning Project which found that 66% of dogs exhibited four or more behavioral changes after losing a pet companion. Give your pet time to cope with the loss. The study found that most dogs returned to normal after two weeks but some took as long as six months. You can help by maintaining their routine and going through your own grief. Your dog will have trouble moving on if you are unable to. If you are afraid these symptoms may be the result of illness, take your dog to the vet to make sure.


Anyone who has watched a dog play knows that our canine companions experience joy! The famous naturalist Charles Darwin noted that "under the expectation of any great pleasure, dogs bound and jump about in an extravagant manner, and bark for joy." Play helps animals to build social bonds, build trust, and learn to cooperate which can better their chances of survival. It also hones cognitive skills and helps in hunting and mating.

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