Does Your Dog Really Love You and What Does That Really Mean? A Journey in Cognitive Science and Moral Philosophy
“Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well.”
By Maria Popova
That humans love their dogs is a fundamental fact of our animal heart, as indisputable and irrepealable as gravity — just look at Lord Byron’s leaden eulogy for his beloved dog. But whether our dogs “love” us and what that really means is a question that hurls the human heart into perennial restlessness, oscillating between absolute, arrogant certainty and endless, insecure doubt. Its answer hints at the elemental nature of all emotion, at the central puzzlement of consciousness, at the very meaning of love, and at the unnerving fact that we can never fully know the inner life of another, be they human or other animal.
That question is what cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, director of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, explores in a chapter of her altogether fascinating book Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond (public library).
Horowitz notes that, both in her lab and while observing dogs in the urban wild, she constantly sees behaviors from which we instinctively infer human-like emotions — curiosity when a dog faces a dancing robot, surprise when a hidden researcher emerges from behind a door — and yet she is frequently asked whether dogs are really capable of the most sweeping human emotions: love, anger, ennui. Are we right to imagine “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled” into a beloved dog’s mental monologue? Framing these questions as “a testament to both the ardor of our interest in our dogs, and our uncertainty about the dog’s experience,” Horowitz writes:
As our own days may be colored with anxiety, anticipation, or foreboding — are dogs’ days so colored? As we respond to events and people with empathy, sarcasm, or incredulity — do dogs tend toward such sentiments?
Many of these questions boil down to whether dogs have feelings or emotions at all. But of course they do. Look at it adaptively: emotions are messaging to the muscles and response system to circumvent the closed-door discussions between the sensory organs and brain. I see a tiger; I know that tigers are predators and this one is coming toward me . . . and Hey!, chimes the brain emotively, Be afraid! Run!
Look at it neurologically: the areas of human brains that are active when we feel, sigh, yearn, and despair are also found in dogs’ brains.
Look at it behaviorally: though we are not always great at naming which behavior indicates what emotion (as we will shortly see), the wide array of different behaviors and postures of dogs tells us about their internal states.
Look at it sensibly. The alternative to having emotions — having undifferentiated experience — defies reason, defies Darwin, defies continuity. Human emotions did not emerge mysteriously and fully formed out of unfeeling automata. Keep in mind that the last popular advocate of the latter belief, Descartes, lived in a time when bloodletting was still considered salubrious.
But while the question of whether dogs feel is a fossil of hubristic medievalism, the question of what and how dogs feel remains just on the cusp of our ability to answer — for our answers are mired in our own projections. After all, the qualia of any conscious experience is singular to the consciousness having it and impenetrable to other consciousnesses — Nina Simone serenaded the impossibility of precisely knowing the qualia of another human animal when she sang “I wish you could know what it means to be me,” let alone the qualia of a non-human animal.
And yet we presume to easily read a dog’s feeling states. A century and a half after Darwin wrote that “man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs, so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master,” Horowitz pulls into question the plainness of emotional inferences drawn from behavioral cues. Having previously written beautifully about how a walk with her own dog ignited an awareness of the myriad different ways of experiencing the same reality, she considers the difference between description and emotional diagnosis:
As shorthand, it makes good sense to me to use emotional terms to describe what I’m seeing. In the lab, I would more likely say, The dog’s head extends forward, leading the body by an extra half-step; the ears are perked into their full height (read: curiosity). A dog jumps back, preparing the body for escape; a “rurf” sound slips out (surprise). Retreating, the dog’s body shrinks down and back (anxiety); on approach, a dog pulls away her head, lifts her paw, curls her lip (disgust); with a high, loosely wagging tail, the dog leaps with two or four legs and attempts to lick every nearby face, dog or human (delight).
I don’t use those shorthand words as my first descriptions of what they are doing — because I hesitate to assume that a dog’s experience of what looks like curiosity or delight is precisely like mine. While the similarities across mammalian brains make it highly likely that all mammals have diverse emotional experiences, we all also have very different lived experiences, based on, for humans, our cultures, where we live, and the people we meet. So, too, for dogs. My own guess is that, planted into a dog’s body, we wouldn’t recognize the feelings we’re flooded with as being just like our own. But that there are feelings, I’ve no doubt.
In this way, I inhabit the territory between the presumptive granting of subjective experience just like humans — and complete denial of any experience. Not presuming to know the dog’s subjective experience is not at all the same as denying them any experience at all.
Paradoxically, she points out, denial has been the crucible of the scientific study of animal consciousness — with strikingly cruel consequences that gnaw at the foundations of morality:
Without definitive evidence of an animal’s fear of pain, researchers say, how can we be sure that the animal feels fear — or pain — at all?
Weirdly, most of the history of medical and psychiatric research has also seemed not to doubt the reality of animals’ feelings. In fact, it presumes feelings in its very premise. To prove the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug for humans, the drug first has to be roundly vetted on an “animal model”: essentially, lab animals have to be made anxious, then given the test, and have their anxiety dissipate (while no other ill effects arise). A history of this kind of thinking is written between the lines of every medical study using animals: they are so similar to us, thus they are a good model for humans.
Should someone make the claim to me that a dog definitely can’t be “depressed,” or benefit from anti-depression medication, I’ll take their hand and walk them back in time. Several decades ago, depression research took a step forward with the development of the “learned helplessness” model, made famous by Martin Seligman. He and his colleague came up with a scheme to see if helplessness could be induced by circumstance. Brace yourself: it involved dogs.
In a passage difficult to read without growing heavy-hearted and fiery with anger, Horowitz goes on to summarize the classic behavioral psychology study — an experiment that involved thirty-two “adult mongrel dogs” who never smelled the outdoor air and lived enslaved in the lab, where they were strapped down and assaulted by electric shocks and 70-decibel noise until they “learned” that they were utterly helpless. Horowitz confesses in a footnote that she had to read the study in three harrowing sittings, punctuated by slamming her computer shut and leaving the room. (Her own lab keeps no live animals, though there are two stuffed toy-dogs, both affectionately named by the researchers. Volunteer subjects come from the “real” world, including one human-canine duo who traveled 210 miles to participate in a 30-minute study.) She reflects on the grim morale of Seligman’s study:
Dogs were shocked, driven to depression and passivity and impotence, to prove that we could feel passivity and impotent in depression. Dogs are still widely used in medical research, make no mistake: this is happening now. Also now. And again.
To watch struggling animals without working to relieve their struggle demonstrates the great dissociation we condone with animals. Our society’s attitude toward animals is thus mismatched. We grant them feelings when it suits our testing needs, but grant them no feelings when it would not suit our testing needs. The human behavior in these test settings — electrocuting; near-drowning — is considered animal cruelty anywhere outside of the test setting.
So why is the question of animal emotions still posed? We are trapped on the far reaches of the pendulum’s swing: either assuming dogs are entirely unlike us or assuming dogs are just like us. As wrongheaded as it is to presume dogs to be unfeeling, it is no more correct to presumptively grant them a humanlike emotional life. (Nor must it be somewhere in-between: for all we know, dogs’ emotional experience is far more elaborate than ours.) We glance at dogs and conclude we know what they’re feeling, but our haste to make such conjecture on little evidence — and inability to read a dog’s emotions when they are displayed — is profound.
Curiously, while we are poor readers of a dog’s emotions, dogs seem to be excellent readers of ours. One of the fascinating findings of Horowitz’s lab is that the familiar “guilty look” we so often perceive in dogs — tail tucked, head lowered, eyebrows slightly knit — is not an indication of a dog’s guilt over a misbehavior but of having registered that the owner is angry or about to get angry, independent of whether or not the dog has done something guilt-worthy. Similarly, Horowitz’s lab found that what classic behavioral studies of fairness perception — one dog is given more treats, another fewer — have interpreted as “jealousy” is simply a dog’s “reasonable refusal to work for nothing.” Her experiment also illuminates the lovely eternal optimism of the dog’s nature:
Against expectation, they preferred to hang out with the unfair person. Again, it seems like they are motivated less by the kinds of feelings of unfairness or jealousy that humans have than by pure optimism that maybe this time, some of those treats will be tossed their way…
Lurking beneath all the ambiguity, affect-blindness, and projection is a testament to the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s assertion that “understanding is love’s other name.” Horowitz considers the intimate crux of our difficulty in discerning dogs’ emotions:
Our inability to read dogs’ emotions well probably begins with our inability to understand our own emotions well. Though perfectly accessible to us — and only to us, truly — our society is constantly putting us to work to “get in touch with” our emotions. And that’s when they are right there for the touching. Given our difficulty, it’s no wonder we are ill-equipped to figure out the emotions of the four-legged creature beside us. So we default to granting dogs emotions, but of the most human sort. We assume dogs are not only in the room with us, but sharing a kind of hive mind with humans.
Does your dog love you? Watch them, and you tell me.
Caroline Paul, writing about another beloved four-legged species of companion, summed up the central paradox of human-pet emotional understanding — and of any emotional understanding — perfectly: “You can never know anyone as completely as you want. But that’s okay, love is better.”
Complement the thoroughly wonderful and revelatory Our Dogs, Ourselves with artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to dogs and John Homans’s beautiful and bittersweet canine-inspired meditation on love, loss, and the art of presence, then revisit Horowitz on how dogs actually “see” the world through smell and what they can teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.