What Do Dogs Think About?

From a story on theguardian.com by Zoe Williams headlined “The inner lives of dogs: what our canine friends really think about love, lust, and laughter”:

It is humanity’s great frustration, to gaze into the eyes of a dog, feel so very close to the creature, and yet have no clue what it’s thinking….

I can never know what my staffie is thinking. Does Romeo realise that what he just did was funny, and did he do it on purpose? Is he laughing on the inside? Can he smile? Can he feel anxious about the future? Can he remember life as a puppy? Does he still get the horn, even though I had his knackers off some years ago? And, greater than all these things: does he love me? I mean, really love me, the way I love him?

To get some answers, I enlisted a group of experts, ranging from a zoologist to an evolutionary anthropologist, and channelled the spirit of Jaak Panksepp, who is commonly acknowledged as the grandfather of dog neuroscience. He died in 2017, leaving behind a body of experimental research and insight, including the theory that all mammal brains share seven primary emotional systems: fear, rage, lust, “seeking”, panic/grief, care and play. Most of my questions fall into these categories, apart from the age-old conundrum: why does my dog get so aroused by hi-vis lanyards? To which the answer is: it could be any reason at all.

Do dogs understand human laughter? Do they make you laugh on purpose?
“Dogs do seem to respond positively to our positive emotions, like laughter and smiling,” says Dr Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Genius of Dogs. But he is cautious about interpretation. “Whether they understand the reason behind the joke, that’s harder to say.”

“Dogs have learned to like us laughing,” says Rob Alleyne, a behaviourist who appeared in the TV series Dog Borstal. “They’ll do something, then look at you to see if you’re amused, then repeat that.” I once asked the comedian Rob Beckett how he could remember his routine – he keeps almost no notes – and he said: “If 500 people laugh at something you said, you’re not going to forget that.” The same circuit of approbation, creating feelings of gratification, laying down a memory of how to elicit that response in the future, is occurring in a dog. It’s just not going to be wordplay – it’ll be something more slapstick.

Does my dog love me?
Many years ago there was a segment on Kilroy, the daytime TV show, called “I love my animal but does my animal love me?” Alleyne appeared on it and remembers: “The audience were ready with a gallows for me by the end. Because I don’t think any animal loves us. They do things that we interpret as love, but they don’t have the capacity, not the way we mean it. That’s why we can rehome them. I couldn’t remove you from your partner and say: ‘I’ve got a friend who’s a much better fit for you.’ Whereas, if I took Romeo and gave him to someone else, three months on, that’ll be his owner.”…

If it’s not love, why does it feel so good?
“You are definitely more than a food dispenser,” Hare says. “Parents and their babies have an oxytocin loop, where they can make each other feel good just by staring into each others’ eyes. Somehow, dogs have inserted themselves into this loop, so that when dogs and owners stare at each other, it increases the oxytocin in both the dog and the owner.”

Can my dog empathise?
No expert alive can tell you that your dog doesn’t know when you’re sad. Alleyne, who, as you can see, is pretty hard-boiled, recalls: “I had a dog many years ago who would recognise when I was down. He would keep his head on my knee for an hour, saying: ‘I understand.’” They can also tell, sometimes, when you have cancer or, more recently, Covid, but that’s more about bio-detection than intimacy.

One simple measure of empathy is yawning. “Contagious yawning is related to empathy scores in adults,” Hare explains. “And in one study, over 70% of dogs yawned when they saw someone yawning.”

Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
Strictly speaking, most of them don’t, according to Petrina Firth, director of the company The Pet Coach and a specialist in the condition. She says she has only met one dog in her career with clinical separation anxiety – an over-attachment to one person. What people generally mean by the term in dogs – destructive behaviour, howling for hours, sometimes nipping ankles when the owner’s shoes are put on, lying down in front of the doorway – is “isolation distress”, generally laid down in puppyhood. Your dog doesn’t feel safe alone, and will do anything to avoid that amorphous feeling of peril. “They don’t come pre-programmed,” Firth explains. “When you go out to Marks & Spencer, they don’t know you’ll be back in an hour. It takes quite a lot of training from when they’re a young puppy to teach them that being on their own is OK, nothing bad happens. Nothing amazing is going to happen, but nothing bad.”

How do they know how long you’ve been gone? Do dogs have a sense of time?
If you feed your dog at the same time every day, their digestive systems will become tailored to expect food at that time and, remarkably, it can be to-the-minute accurate

But a dog that can be left for 40 minutes, yet freak out after 45 – what’s that about? The current best theory is that your scent in the air recedes minutely over time. Whenever you’re trying to understand a smell-related behaviour, remember that humans can smell a spoon of sugar in a cup of tea, while a dog can smell a spoon of sugar in a swimming pool.

What’s the difference between distress and anxiety?
This is mainly developmental – a young dog will experience distress in the moment: “I’m on my own and I don’t like it.” As it gets older, Firth says, “it will start to worry that it’s going to have that horrible feeling – worry about worrying, which is essentially what anxiety is. And there are lots of cues in the environment, like humans finding keys, to set them off.”

Why do some dogs attack others for no apparent reason?
Hare counsels, as Alleyne does, that you just have to read it right. “Some dogs are xenophobic, which means they don’t like strangers. So just meeting a strange dog could create enough fear to make it feel like it needs to protect itself. A lot of dog aggression is explainable if you have a good understanding of dogs’ natural history, body language and behaviour.”

Alleyne’s explanation is more controversial: “Aggression is by a mile the most common problem I see, which it wasn’t 20 years ago. We’ve been bullied and badgered into socialising our dogs. They’ve become aggressive towards each other when we’ve never tried harder to socialise them. We haven’t thought about what socialising is: what we’re really doing is allowing them to be beaten up by other dogs when they’re too small to protect themselves. We call it one-trial learning: it only takes a single incident for a puppy to learn that other dogs are a threat.”


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