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How Can You Tell If a Dog is Happy?
As dog lovers, we make decisions all the time that we believe will make our dogs “happy.” What we buy for their use or consumption, what we choose to do (or not do) with them, how we touch them--indeed, I’d bet that there are very few actions which you take for the purpose of having a direct and specific impact on your dog other than maximizing his or her aggregate happiness.
All sounds well and good, right? And it is, of course, in theory. But here’s the bad news: you suck at it.
In fact, we all do. Now, that’s not to say that all of us are making our dogs miserable. It’s just that there are a whole host of glitches that are hard-wired into our biological makeups and into our default relationships with our non-human friends that make it really difficult for us to identify the emotional experience of happiness in our pets and to act in such a way that we maximize the depth and duration of that experience.
The most obvious problem we have in diagnosing the emotional experiences of our pets is that our pets cannot communicate to us verbally. Emotional experiences occur “on the inside.” If you want to know how I am feeling you can’t just crawl into my skin, you’ve got to ingest some sensory data, turn that data into information, and then make some well-reasoned conclusions about the information. When it comes to the data-ingestion part of the equation, you’ve essentially got two options: (1) I can describe for you the nature of my internal emotional experience using words and other symbols that have meaning to you (I say “I feel happy”) or (2) I can exhibit some other outward behavior that you recognize to be an indicator of an inner emotional experience (I smile at you).
With our pets, there is no Option (1). If you want to guess how your dog is feeling, you are limited to observing and analyzing non-verbal behavior. (Some of that behavior might even be deliberately communicative but none of it will be verbal.) If you want to become a better guesser, you are limited to improving your observational skills or improving your analyses.
I can hear you now: You’re making a mountain out of a molehill! You don’t exactly have to be Clever Hans to know that my dog feels happy when he sees me grab the leash!
Fair point. Like humans, dogs are social animals. So, like humans, dogs exhibit evolutionary adaptations, such as expressive faces, that allow them to communicate information about their emotional state for the purpose of preserving social relationships. As the brilliant ethologist Patricia B. McConnell explains in her book “For the Love of a Dog”:
It’s no coincidence that highly social animals like people and dogs have exceptionally expressive faces. Solitary animals, pandas, for example, have relatively impassive faces that make it difficult to figure out how they’re feeling. That makes sense, because if you’re a solitary animal, it doesn’t matter whether others are able to evaluate your emotions: there are no “others” to begin with. But if you live in a tight-knit group, it matters greatly whether you’re scared or frustrated, because your emotions are excellent predictors of what you’ll do next--handy information when you are affected by the behavior of those around you.
A nice example of a physiological manifestation consistent with this theory are the spots and other coloration changes found above the eyes of many dogs. Like our eyebrows, these off-color patches accentuate the movements of the brow muscles, which are heavily involved in many human emotional expressions. It stands to reason (though like all evolutionary theories it is difficult to prove scientifically) that these markers evolved to help both dogs and humans communicate their internal emotional state.
But just because there are ways in which your dog’s behavior communicates her internal emotional state doesn’t necessarily mean that you can accurately determine that emotional state by observing her carefully.
Anthropomorphism accentuates the difficulties caused by your dog’s inability to verbally communicate her emotions in several ways. Humans are highly social animals who often engage in dozens of person-to-person interactions every day of our lives. All this interacting has made us good at predicting the inner emotional states of other humans simply by observing their outward behaviors and drawing conclusions by thinking about the way we feel when we behave similarly. But we’re so good at this amazing skill that we unconsciously and improperly apply it in our dealings with non-human animals too. So when we observe a behavior in our non-human friends that bears some likeness to a human behavior we tend to assume that the non-human behavior is indicative of an inner experience similar to that we attribute to similarly behaving humans.
An example is the mistaken assumption that your dog is happy simply because she is making a smiling expression with her mouth. Dogs often perform such expressions and you can probably imagine your dog making one right now. The corners of her mouth are drawn back and elevated, her mouth is open and relaxed and wide, perhaps her tongue is lolling out to one side. She looks happy.
But she very well might not be. It’s not that her smile is insincere -- unlike humans, who often make insincere smiles in order to deceive others about the true nature of our emotional state, dogs are not capable of intentional deception. It’s just that it might not be an expression of happiness; instead, she might just be overheated. The primary way that dogs lower their body temperature is by drawing air over the soft tissues of the mouth and throat. This process works better when there’s more air flowing (breathing becomes more rapid) or more soft tissue surface area for the air to flow over (mouths widen and tongues flatten and lengthen). So panting dogs often display relaxed, grinning mouths, regardless of their internal emotional state.
We make a similar mistake when we wrongly assume that behaviors which make other humans feel happy are likely also to make dogs feel happy. An example of this phenomenon is the act of hugging (Dr. McConnell also touches on this in For the Love of a Dog). Many humans show affection by hugging each other. We know that we feel loved and comforted when someone hugs us. We reasonably assume that other people will feel similarly in similar situations. So when an occasion arrives when we want to make another person feel loved and comforted, we hug ‘em.
And many of us do the same thing to our dogs. This is a problem because the social significance of an embrace is wildly different in canine social interactions and human ones. When a dog drapes its body across the neck and shoulders of another dog, it is a sign of dominance, not affection. So when you hug your dog, she’s likely to feel anxious and inferior, not happy and loved. Don’t believe me (many folks find this notion hard to swallow)? The next time you blanket your pup with a big, sloppy hug have someone else observe her facial expressions and describe for you the worry and anxiety that will be expressed by her tightly-closed mouth and widened eyes. No one would interpret such a look as an expression of happiness and relaxation.
That’s it for today. Hopefully we’ve caused you to reconsider some of your preconceptions about how you observe and understand your dog’s basic emotional state. Naturally, there is plenty more to say on this topic. Check out the work published by Dr. McConnell, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, and Dr. Bruce Fogle (a practicing veterinarian living in London who has published numerous books on canine psychology from a clinician’s perspective).