Not only will our pet dog pick up minute changes in its olfactory environment but also on tiny, almost indiscernible changes in our body language and general demeanor. As a means of survival, dogs have developed this ability as a primitive instinct. Some will call this intuition but this is when it all starts to get philosophical! Responsible dog trainers and behaviourists do not think philosophically but scientifically. Dog training is firstly a science and secondly an art. Some people have the knack, others don’t. Animals think in pictures; they simply don’t have the vocabulary to express themselves. Humans have turned this to their advantage leading to the many breeds (I am thinking specifically about working breeds) we have today, not least of which are assistance dogs.
One branch of this is the training of dogs to assist war veterans and others suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Returning to the original question, can dogs indeed gauge mood; are they capable of feeling empathy, even sympathy? In his 2012 blog, Stanley Coren cites an example of a dog reacting to a baby’s cries. The dog is clearly moved and seeks comfort from its human. Coren goes on to suggest this may be mood contagion and that the dog is comforting himself, as the result of a cortisol boost, rather than showing empathy or sympathy for the baby. However, later in 2012 Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer from London’s Goldsmiths College conducted research involving not only dogs’ owners, but strangers in the same room. In turn they would feign crying and the dogs would actually approach the strangers appearing to offer solace.
Just this year, Dr Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, Atlanta, trained dogs to go inside an MRI scanner. There are striking similarities between a dog’s brain (and mammals generally) and a human’s. The caudate nucleus is rich in dopamine receptors. (Dopamine is a neurohormone and may be described as the ‘pleasure’ or ‘addiction’ hormone). This part of the brain is responsible for the actions of an individual when in a state of anticipation – the information is received and a decision has to be made about the course of action. The findings are that dogs are capable of feelings similar to that of humans and are indeed sentient. It would appear we have bred our dogs not only to show empathy but also sympathy. The more sceptical might suggest that the dogs are actually responding to the slightest changes in body language or curiosity at a person’s reaction.
After some 15,000 years of co-existence with dogs, it is unlikely that we share no emotional similarities – after all we are able to read their facial expressions and body language, as they can ours!
Not as bad as it appears. Dr Berns, along with his assistants, trained the dog/s especially, monitoring carefully heart rate and other factors!