by Victoria Heuer
In my search to divine just what life is all about, I read a lot of science news, especially from the field of animal behavior. It doesn’t matter the animal. From human to mouse to ant, I find the parallels fascinating.
For a long time, science said that animals, companion pets included, did not have the capacity for love or affection; presumably because these higher emotions require self-awareness, which was believed to only exist in humans. For those of us who feel love for our companion pets, and who have multiple pets that get along well with each other, we have argued that animals very much do show affection and attachments that resemble what we recognize as love. Those who recognize it intuitively are often told that they are naïve, and that they are anthropomorphizing animals (see Lady and the Tramp).
It appears that science has caught up with what some of us already knew.
Beyond the obvious anger dogs feel when they are teased, research is finding that animals feel emotions in much the same ways that we are familiar with. In one experiment, dogs displayed jealousy and were uncooperative when they felt they are being treated unfairly.
“Both dogs in each pair were individually commanded to ‘shake hands,’ but only one dog received a reward. The dog that was not getting treats for performing soon stopped doing the task. Furthermore, the dog that was not rewarded showed clear signs of stress or annoyance when its partner got the reward.”
We may recognize this as the “his cake is bigger than mine” complaint common in siblings. Well, so to speak, since dogs only got jealous if they were not getting a treat while the other dog was getting a treat. Once they were both getting treats, even if one got better treats than the other, they didn’t discern the difference between the quality or size of the treats.
Not proven, perhaps, but observed with enough frequency to make it a hypothesis.
Also hypothetically believed to be true is that dogs feel empathy. Now, again, our experience with observing dogs shows us that dogs are the best animals for assisting the handicapped, have the best history of saving people from danger, and are the most common found in physical and mental health centers for their ability to comfort. Here is what Goldsmiths, University of London researchers found:
“Significantly more dogs looked at, approached and touched the humans as they were crying as opposed to humming, and no dogs responded during talking.
The study also found that the dogs responded to the person who was crying regardless of whether it was their owner or the unfamiliar person. ‘…they were responding to the person’s emotion, not their own needs’”
Of course it can be argued that they are simply displaying learned behaviors, entrenched over years of breeding for those qualities, but couldn’t the same be said for most humans, as well? For that matter, not all dogs are capable of comforting a distressed human, just as not all humans are capable of empathic behavior. And just as with people, there are special dogs that are better at empathy than others, what some refer to as “comfort dogs.”
If I had my druthers, I would choose a comfort dog over a human. A dog won’t try to lift my mood by giving me problem solving advice or telling me that I will feel better in the future (who cares how I will feel then, I feel sad now!). Dogs don’t give comfort because they value the Karmic giving of themselves with expectations of reciprocation. Comfort dogs live in the moment and give comfort without thought of future reward. Heck, they don’t even do it for the treats.
Can the same be said for cats? Next week.
Until then, please share your comments on how your dog (or other pet) has displayed emotion toward you or other animals or humans.
Stanley Coren, Ph.D. Psychology Today. (2011). Do Dogs Feel Jealousy and Envy?
Goldsmiths University of London. (2012). Domestic dogs display empathic response to distress in dogs.