Understanding Emotions In Your Best Friend: For the Love of a Dog

By Steve Dale

In her most recent book “For the Love Of A Dog: Understanding Emotion In You And Your Best Friend,” (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2006; $24.95) author Patricia McConnell begins with the premise that dogs have emotions. It’s a premise she knows not everyone agrees with.

“I know, the range of beliefs is huge,” she says. “And it’s not necessarily white-robed scientists on one side and pet lovers on the other. I gave a talk in Boulder, Colorado at the University of Colorado and one of the audience members said he had dinner with four of his full fledged professor colleagues; three of them argued that dogs don’t have emotions.”

McConnell, who is a PhD certified applied animal behaviorist and professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, pauses for a moment and looks down. It’s as if she’s looking down at an invisible dog. “Awe, those furry things get inside our hearts for a reason. C’mon now, if you’ve ever had a dog, you must know.”

She continues, “Okay, here’s what we know and I mean this is good science. We know emotions turn out to be very primitive things. They exist in the basic mammalian limbic system of our brains to help an individual to make decisions to cope with a changing environment. I believe people and dogs are joined at the limbic systems.”

In her book, there are photos of people who look happy and their dogs seem to be smiling too. Similarly, there are pictures of people looking concerned or angry; and their dogs look equally worried or downright mad. “If we blocked out the human in the photo, and I stopped people on the street they could tell me which emotion the dog is feeling,” McConnell says.

Here’s an experiment anyone can try at home. Tell a friend or your significant other to tell you a joke. Now take a picture of your face, or simply look at yourself in the mirror. Your jaw’s relaxed, your mouth is a little open and your lips are pulled back. McConnell adds one more step. “Now, pant like a dog. It’s easy to do. When dogs smile ” and I believe they do smile ” the dog’s jaw is a little relaxed, the mouth is open a little, the lips are pulled back and they’re panting slightly. We have the same smile as dogs, except that we don’t pant, well, not usually. Also, dogs eyes are a little squinty when they smile, and ours are too, it’s the anti-botox look. That smile is one thing that attracts us to dogs.”

Of course, the standard answer as to why we love dogs is that they offer us unconditional love. McConnell adds, “It’s far more complicated than that. I think there’s truth to unconditional love. But, also, here’s an instance where it’s a good thing dogs can’t talk. If they did talk, I bet we’d be crushed to learn that they may not worship the ground we walk on every second of every day.”

McConnell believes there’s growing evidence to support the notion that dogs and human beings have shared an evolutionary pathway, making us predisposed to accept dogs and live with them as we do no other species. “Think about it,” she says. “All an average person requires is a moment’s early exposure and positive experience, and you’ll love dogs the rest of your life. Also, think about how easy it is for us to live with this completely different species. Chimpanzees, gorillas and monkeys are all far more closely related (than dogs). But we don’t share our beds at night with gorillas.”

McConnell concedes, well, for starters they’re domesticated. But we’ve actually bred dogs to be more lovable. Particularly as puppies they’re naturally endearing to us for a reason, she notes. They have big eyes, large foreheads, features shared with human babies. And, yes, there’s that smile. “We’re hard-wired to respond to these human baby features,” McConnell adds. “All of this combined stimulates the nurturing hormone oxytocin which makes us feel warm and fuzzy all over. No wonder we bond so well to dogs.”

Dogs share their emotions with other dogs, just as people share their emotions with others. “Emotions are contagious,” McConnell continues. “Dogs are happy a lot, even just when they see us. So, we get happy only because they’re happy ” they make us feel good.”

In her book, she postulates that when we’re sad, dogs might even empathize with us. For one thing, we realize that we’re sad. And for another, actually attempting to comfort us. She says, “Again, here’s a quality some in science and some just out there in the world just don’t want to permit our dogs to have. But I think they do.”

McConnell also wonders out loud whether dogs are capable of grieving loss. Certainly, lifelong dog owners have stories to support that notion, even if science doesn’t. “Yes, this is a big one for some people to accept,” she says. “After all, some are convinced dogs only think in the present. If they grieve death then we’re suggesting that they understand the concept that the person or dog won’t be around in the future, right?”

Arguably, the dogs are sad ” but could it be that they’re sad only because that person or that dog isn’t there at the moment? Perhaps the dog isn’t understanding the concept of forever being gone, and is just missing that person or dog in the present ” similar to the dog missing you when you go to the store to get milk. “Good point,” McConnell concedes. “The truth is that we don’t know.”

However, the topper of all emotions is love. Her book is called “For the Love Of A Dog,” but do our dogs really love us? McConnell squints her eyes as if she can’t understand why anyone would dare ask. “All right, this isn’t a scientific response, but this is a truthful one,” she says. “In 1992 I fell in love. The love of my life was a dog named Luke. I mean we were instantly best buddies. Did he love me? I can’t tell you, of course. But I sure think so. I mean, look at Hurricane Katrina, and how many people actually gave up their lives for their pets. Isn’t love the willingness to make an ultimate sacrifice? And look at the dogs who have done the same “and there are documented true stories ” dogs who have given up their lives for people. It’s an emotional tie that we still don’t yet understand. When it comes down to it, is it really about love? Well, I happen to think it is.”


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