Do Dogs Have Feelings?

Do Dogs Have Feelings?

Anthropomorphism is the personification or attribution of human form or emotions to something that is not human. Many dog owners are guilty of anthropomorphism when they explain their dog’s behavior as if the dog were able to display human emotion. Many of us have done that. Surely you know someone who has made the following remarks: “I know he ate my slipper because he was angry with me when I didn’t take him out for a walk.” Or “He snubbed me when I got home because he wanted me to know he was unhappy with me.”

Dog experts will often advise dog owners not to humanize their dogs. Dogs are not people, they are dogs. They don’t think like people. They think like dogs. But just because they are not human, and they don’t think like us, doesn’t mean they don’t have feelings. Ten years from now we may look back on lots of new research that can substantiate claims regarding dogs and feelings. But until then, here is a recent event in our own canine household that got my husband Kevin to thinking about the subject. His written musings are as follows:

Kodiak on the DL

Somebody out there raise his or her hand if he/she knows what the subject “neuroeconomics” might entail. The word appears in today’s Washington Post in a story about whether dogs are able to feel “love” the same way humans do. There’s a professor of neuroeconomics who has written a couple of NY Times articles in the past three months about this very subject.

I’m always wary of people who anthropomorphize animals, but that doesn’t deter me from reading just about everything they have to say. I’m curious about how dogs think and what they think about. I suspect, despite my aversion to anthropomorphization, that they “think” about more stuff than we think they think about and that they “feel” more than we think they feel. I have only anecdotal evidence to support this suspicion and, being a born skeptic and then having gone to law school and exacerbated the problem, I don’t trust anecdotal evidence, even if it is my own anecdotal evidence.

Well, turning away from my personal idiosyncrasies and refocusing on “neuroeconomics”, a professor named Gregory Berns, from Emory University, has figured out a way to have his dog stick his head in an MRI machine and remain perfectly still so that they can observe the dog’s brain activity. I think they call these Functional MRI’s because they are observing the brain function while they stimulate it with, for example, a dog biscuit or the sight of the dog’s owner.

And what did they discover? Well, for one thing, they discovered that a dog can still poop while lying perfectly still in an MRI machine. This would not come as a surprise to any musher who has seen a dog poop while pulling a dog sled at warp speed. Or, for that matter, to our vet who has had one of our huskies poop on his foot while he was examining his ears.

They also discovered that a part of the dog’s brain, the “caudate nucleus” functions similarly to the same part of the human brain. It is loaded with “dopamine receptors” and lights up in anticipation of something the dog enjoys (e.g., food or the sight of his owner).

A point of clarification here. Other studies have found that a congressman’s brain lights up at the thought of campaign contributions. But his caudate nucleus is loaded with “dope-mine receptors” which cause him to do idiotic things to get re-elected.

Now, we know for a fact that the congressman’s reaction is triggered by self-love but Professor Berne thinks that the dog’s reaction is triggered by a “love” of someone else, his owner, and that he has “feelings” for his owner that he has for nobody else. Any dog owner will tell you that this is true. It doesn’t seem particularly surprising that a portion of the brain would reflect this and evolution would explain why both humans and dogs have a similar brain section.

So what has this gotten us? Well it has gotten us another book about dogs. And it is January 1st when we all plot out our reading for the coming year. The book is entitled “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain”.
I’m adding it to my reading list.

But my purpose here is not to hawk a book written by a neuroeconomist. My purpose is to tell you about our dog Kodiak, who is on the disabled list for at least a week with an injured leg.

Two days ago, we venture up to Fair Hill, near the University of Delaware, to run the dogs. As usual, the Head Musher sets the dogs out on a picket line while I set up the cart. As she’s putting harnesses on the dogs starting at the right end of the line, I wander over to left end of the line to quiet Kodiak and Aura who are jumping up and down and barking, worried that they will be left behind although, of course, they never are. Makes you wonder what part of the dog’s brain overlooks this fact.

It was then that I notice what looks like a cut on Kodiak’s passenger-side rear leg. Upon closer examination it turns out to be a two inch cut that is not bleeding but is still slightly open. This causes the Head Musher to bench Kodiak for the day’s run and leave him in the car with me.

When the team pulls out, he starts howling at the top of his lungs. It’s his full-bodied howl. He’s PO’ed and nothing I’m going to say or do is going to calm him. I finally give up trying to read and howl along with him. Show me an owner of a husky who hasn’t howled along with his dog at least once and I’ll show you…well, I won’t show you anything because there is no such person.

While this howling is going on, a guy drives up, parks next to me, and gives me a strange look. What’s with this guy? My window is down and I tell him; “My dog doesn’t like to howl alone!” pointing at Kodiak in his crate. The guy smiles and quickly moves away from the car. He’s dressed in one of those aerodynamic exercise outfits that serious bicyclists wear and a pointy helmet that cuts down on wind-resistance. This is not a person with a sense of humor. As he looks at me and I look at him we both have exactly the same thought at exactly the same time: “This guy might be a serial killer!” I’m absolutely sure that he was wrong.

So Kodiak ends up visiting our local vet yesterday and gets four staples in his leg to seal the wound. We still have no idea how he got injured. He never licked the wound or favored the leg.

Now, spring ahead to this morning. We are up at 5:00am and all the dogs know that this means the team is heading back to Delaware to run. Of course, Kodiak thinks he’s going, but he’s not. The Head Musher loads the dogs into the van while Kodiak stays with me. I try to keep him away from the front door so that he won’t see the car leave. He bolts for the door and sees the car pull out of the driveway.

Now we are getting to the reason for this mushing bulletin!

When the Head Musher pulls out of the driveway, Kodiak is watching the car from the front door. There’s a pause of about a minute. Complete silence. Then it starts. Not a full-bodied howl of two days ago when he was left in the car. Not even a half-bodied howl. Not even his sympathetic howl that he uses to commiserate with Aura when she’s upset about something. This is a very low, barely discernible, quiet, sorrowful, mournful, anguished, brokenhearted, plaintive howl that doesn’t even involve raising his muzzle and pointing it at the sky. It’s a slumped-over howl.

You don’t need a Functional MRI to tell you that this dog is feeling unhappy. But he isn’t unhappy in a barking, I’m mad, kind of way. He’s unhappy in a the-world-has-let-me-down kind of way. A way that tears at your heart. A way that rules out words of consolation. A nobody-knows-how-I-feel-kind of way. I immediately flash back to that ground ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series. It’s that kind of unhappiness. I can feel his pain.

Here he is in mid-howl…


I take him to the Seven-Eleven with me to get a cup of coffee. Maybe the smell of a cup of Brazilian Bold or Guatemalan Santa Rosa will snap him out of it.

No such luck. His chin is on my leg now as I’m typing. He’s doing his impersonation of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance. But at least he’s stopped that Edgar Allan Poe, Tell-Tale Heart, howling that makes you want to confess to a murder that you committed decades ago.

I may give Professor Berns a call, try to set up an MRI, and see if we can get a scientific handle on this feeling called unhappiness.

The One-man Pit Crew

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