I’ll admit it up front: I might be just a bit obsessed with figuring out what goes on inside a dog’s mind. But many of you more “normal” dog lovers might appreciate a movie that helps by way of metaphor.
If you haven’t seen it yet, get yourself to the next showing of “Inside Out.” Stay for the credits. “Inside Out,” a summer blockbuster, is an animated movie that takes viewers inside the head of 11-year-old Riley Anderson. The main characters are her five primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.
The metaphor should be obvious: Of course dogs experience these emotions. The real question is: How is their experience similar to (and different from) ours?
I’ve always been sure that dogs experience their own versions of joy, sadness, anger, and fear. I was on the fence about dogs and disgust for a long time, though. I’ve seen dogs eat and/or roll in many, many things that certainly trigger my disgust. Their concept of disgust, if it existed, was a mystery.
Then we offered Wylie, a fussy German shepherd, a peanut butter treat. The expression on his face: Pure disgust. He actually flinched. Then he wrinkled his nose, curled his lips, and backed away. That, and the accompanying reflexive gag, couldn’t be anything else. Peanut butter was clearly a human attempt to poison him.
Then there’s Jana’s priceless, very teenagery, eye-roll when Cali and Dora get too wild. Yep. Pure disgust: Puppies. Ick.
“Inside Out,” which I personally think is meant for adults — the best stuff goes right over the kids’ heads! — explains the necessity for and connections among all of those complicated emotions. Fear makes you pay attention: It can literally wake you up. Joy helps create the core elements of your personality. Sadness makes happy memories more precious. It can also influence your choices, pushing you to make decisions that allow you to hold onto memories — or connections — that once were joyful. Anger can make you notice injustice, or even speak out against it.
Which brings us back to disgust. A key role of Disgust, according to the movie is keeping us from being poisoned; toddler Riley is sure that broccoli will kill her. Disgust doesn’t seem to play the same role for Jana, who happens to love broccoli. She also wolfs down acorns every chance she gets, despite the cramps and upset tummy that inevitably follow. She is among the many dogs who eagerly lap up things that could (and do) poison them, ranging from antifreeze to raisins or chocolate. So I am still puzzling out what the emotion of disgust does for dogs — other than convince them that their own humans are trying to poison them.
A key lesson in the film that applies equally to dogs is the link between emotions and memory. Memories without a strong emotional component fade away, turn a dull gray, and are swept into a dump by an army of technicians in Riley’s brain. (The same guys periodically send up an annoying jingle from a gum commercial to bounce around in her head all day for no particular reason. I wonder if that happens to dogs.)
One of the ways that the other emotions kept Fear under control was by creating frequent associations with Joy. This is an essential fact for anyone with a dog, particularly a puppy, to understand. To forestall fears, dogs need frequent association of positive, joyful emotions with things that could be scary — people in hats, loud noises, balloons … Ideally, this happens in early puppyhood, before the dog hits adolescence.
But even fearful adult dogs can be helped. As “Inside Out” shows, recalling a memory while in a different emotional state can alter the emotion associated with the memory. In the movie, this is dramatically illustrated when every joyful memory that Sadness touches takes on her hue of blue … but it can work the other way, too. As trainers who advocate counter-conditioning and desensitization know, we can sometimes change fearful associations to joyful ones with careful, controlled exposure and appropriate positive reinforcement.
OK, so, why should you stay for the credits? I don’t want to give too much away, but the glimpse inside the dog’s mind is enough for me to want a canine sequel. The cat might even be better …