Watch Closely for Cues to Dogs’ Feelings

It’s not necessary to understand micro-expressions to read Cali’s displeasure here.

Anyone out there remember “Lie to Me”? It is a TV series about a group of psychologists who solved mysteries by decoding the micro-expressions of various players until they unraveled the problem or found the missing person or whatever. That’s where I first heard of micro-expressions, which are involuntary and almost imperceptible facial expressions that express a person’s emotions — before the person consciously arranges her features to show whatever she thinks she’s feeling or wants others to see. Micro-expressions most often occur when a person is trying to hide her true feelings — or is lying, which is the premise of the TV series.

Turns out, dogs have micro-expressions too.

These are similar to — but far more subtle and easier to miss than — calming signals. Calming signals are dog body language cues that offer insight into how the dog is feeling, and they can be involuntary. But dogs can actively choose to offer calming signals, and they often do so — to other dogs and to humans, as targeted communication. But even involuntary calming signals are communicative. Examples of calming signals are the lip-licks and yawns of a stressed dog. These serve to both self-soothe (calm the dog) and tell others that she’s stressed. More examples are given in Please Back Off.

Micro-expressions in dogs, according to research done in Japan, are similar to micro-expressions in humans; they are fleeting and very easy to miss. But they also reveal preferences and can show an astute observer whether a dog is happy about something or feeling fear or dread. The researcher, Miho Nagasawa, has also studied the link between oxytocin level and dog-human interactions (dogs’ oxytocin levels rise when they gaze at their owner or interact; people’s oxytocin also rises when they stroke a dog).

Back to micro-expressions. Dogs show, with quick ear flicks, if they find something (or someone) unappealing or frightening. They show, with a quick eyebrow raise, pleasure at the sight of their human or a favorite toy. The images were captured with high-speed cameras, and are probably too fast for most of us to notice. You can read more about it in Dr. Stanley Coren’s blog post, “Just How Happy Is Your Dog?

As with MRI studies by Dr. Gregory Berns, the research points to more and more ways that dogs and humans are alike in how we experience and show emotions. I don’t find the similarities terribly surprising, but I do think that the more we learn about how dogs (and other nonhumans) think and feel, the harder it will be to justify or excuse much of our terrible treatment of them. It also offers a great excuse for spending time just watching your dog … you both get that nice oxytocin boost, and you might observe some fleeting body language cues that will help you understand your dog better!

 

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Mood Collars

 

Package for Mood Collar, which is not a real product. Shows cartoon dog with "mood ring" type stone in his collar.
The Mood Collar is no longer available from Moody Pets, but lots of cool toys are. Check them out.

I saw an article recently on a collar that lights up in different colors to reflect the emotion the dog is showing — a mood ring, or mood collar, for dogs.

The collar, called Inupathy, was developed by a Japanese biologist. The collar monitors the dog’s heartbeat and shows whether the dog is calm, excited, anxious, or angry. Co-creator Joji Yamaguchi told the BBC that he wanted to better understand his dog’s emotions. Fair enough.

But couldn’t he just pay closer attention to his dog?

It’s not always easy to tell distinguish an anxious or scared dog from an aggressive one, unless you get really good at reading the early signals of stress. By the time the dog is barking, the frightened, overwhelmed dog looks a lot like an aggressive terror.

If this collar had a sensor that was sensitive enough to pick up on early signs of anxiety, it could be a great training aid. I could see using it to figure out what the stress triggers were, then teaching the dog’s human to recognize and avoid or manage those situations. It would also make it easier for trainers to teach the dogs’ humans to recognize the early signs of stress — calming signals for example. If they saw the dog yawning or licking his lips a lot and the collar started showing anxiety, well, the owner could be trained to notice and respond to those signals.

I read somewhere else, a while ago, that someone was working on a collar that would translate barks into the language of the owner’s choice. That seems less useful (and less possible) to me. The mood collar, though, sounds groovy. And useful. I think it would be a great training aid!

The Experts Finally Noticed

That dogs have feelings, emotions, and thoughts probably seems obvious to readers of this blog, as well as to most people who share their lives with pets. But, as I tell my students at Bergin U, sometimes things need the stamp of approval of science, via peer-reviewed research, to be fully accepted as Truth. Many, many studies of dogs’ behavior and cognitive abilities do not, actually, reveal anything that we didn’t already “know.” But these studies solidify that knowledge and induct it into the Body of Knowledge that gets academic credit, credibility, proof.

That’s why the establishment of a new scientific journal dedicated to the study of animal sentience is significant. Acknowledgement and study of animals’ thoughts and emotions has grown tremendously over the past twenty years or so. Now, those studies have their own journal. Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling is a publication of the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy (HSISP), based in Washington D.C.

Alva Noë, a philosopher, says in an NPR article that “A new scientific journal is not merely a new venue for publishing research, it can encourage new science, create a new community of investigators and, to some degree, contribute to the establishing of new fields.”

That’s an exciting thought for people who care about nonhuman animals — and dogs in particular. For centuries, dogs were not considered worthy of academic study. Now, several universities host canine cognition labs; at Bergin U and elsewhere, students study the canine mind, along with canine behavior and communication, as they explore ways to expand the human-canine partnership.

The journal embraces a broad definition of sentience or “feeling”: “Feeling can be any sensation, such as seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, moving, wanting, pain, pleasure, emotion, mood, anticipation or intention.” Intention. Anticipation. I know that my dogs experience these higher-level “feelings.” I also know that generations of researchers have been ridiculed for asserting that dogs (or any nonhumans) could.

It matters that people recognize dogs’ sentience so that the we can improve how we, as individuals and as a society, treat dogs. Before we had anticruelty laws, we had to know that animals could suffer, could feel pain. Now, as we consider how dogs fit into our lives and our society, it is equally important to recognize that they feel more than pain. They think, wonder, plan, feel happy or sad, they grieve — and they empathize when we feel sadness or grief. How do we need to change our laws and our treatment of dogs to accommodate this new understanding?

Hoping for a Doggy Sequel

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 …

 

How Dogs Love Us

howdogsloveus_260Gregory Berns got the crazy idea of training his dog to lie still in an MRI machine, in the hope it would provide some insight into dogs’ thinking. What he found brings scientific proof to something every dog person knows — that dogs read us, anticipate our behavior, and act on that knowledge. Dogs, in short, have theory of mind. Berns rightly argues that this scientific evidence must change the way we think of and treat dogs.

What’s especially wonderful about this story is that, at least at the beginning, Berns is not an especially savvy dog person. He loves his dogs, treats them extremely well, but hasn’t spent a lot of time trying to communicate effectively with them or train them. By the end of the book — or maybe by a few months into the research — he’s become convinced that dogs communicate and function on a very high level and that “the key to improving dog-human relationships is through social cognition, not behaviorism.” Quite a journey … in fact, it’s the same journey that I hope to push my students along in Bergin U classes on dog training, canine-human communication and understanding the dog’s perspective. (Any current Bergin U students reading this might as well order their copies now … this book is destined to become required reading in all my classes.)

The book is filled with fairly complex scientific concepts, but it is written beautifully and clearly. It is very easy to understand and, like a good adventure novel, pulls readers along with foreshadowing and suspense. I especially love the long discussion of the ethical issues Berns and his team faced in setting up the research and the insistence of all the human researchers that the dogs would always be free to opt out, at any time. I also love the dog-centric approach the research takes (read the book to find out what I mean!). This book — this whole research study —is a testament to the amazing possibilities that exist when humans acknowledge their dogs’ abilities, treat them as partners (rather than as property or as slaves), and engage with them in a respectful, positive manner.

Because I am nut for precise language, I do have to quibble with the title. Berns does not actually show HOW dogs love us. He does show, I believe, that they DO love their human family members. While he can’t really show us what dogs are thinking, though, he has shown a way to understand their likes and dislikes — and perhaps opened the door to a better ability to read in dogs other emotions that humans and dogs share.