Reading The Emotions Of Our Companion Dogs
Taking care of our companion animals involves looking after their physical as well as their emotional well-being, and we often rely on specific behaviours to gauge these. For emotional well-being, humans mostly look at things such as tail wagging and specific vocalizations to indicate positive states, and more research is being devoted to exploring the full spectrum of such behaviours. People with companion dogs “self-report good understanding of canine emotional states” and “owner knowledge is often used as a proxy for assessment of animal well-being.” In other words, companion people think they have a pretty good sense of their dogs’ emotions and that knowledge is passed on to veterinarians when assessing companion animal health. Of course, there can be a big discrepancy in how human companions perceive their dog’s emotional state and the dog’s actual emotional well-being.
This study from the United Kingdom explored “contexts and behaviour patterns potentially associated with positive emotional states in companion dogs by examining owner perceptions.” Of the various behaviours they studied, the ones that were most commonly perceived to promote “positive high arousal” (PHA) were “anticipation of a walk (85%) or food (81%),” while those most associated with “positive low arousal” (PLA) were “resting in the dog’s own bed or area (86%), resting (in general: 84%) and being stroked gently by the owner (84%).” When assessing PHA, people looked mostly at the dog’s tail (13% of total indicators provided across all modes of expression), the activity of the dog (12%) and eyes (11%). Whole body behaviours (7%) were described least frequently. For PLA, indicators associated with the tail (12%), activity (12%) and eyes (11%) were described most often, while leg-related behaviours (7%) were referred to least often.
This study suggests that there is near consensus among human companions about what they think “makes their dog happy and how they can tell.” The consensus may mean that those indicators are an accurate way to assess emotional states, but the researchers note that further investigation is needed regarding “owner attachment to their pet, experience or vested interests,” and how those factors affect our views. For animal advocates, the study is a good reminder: just because we think we know what makes our companions (or any animal) happy doesn’t make it true; we should always strive to improve our understanding of companion animals while also recognizing our limitations.