Dog psychology is a subject viewed with scepticism or derision by many for a long time. The concept of dogs as individuals, displaying individuality and personality met strong denials, and it was widely thought that dogs did not experience emotion.
As time has moved on and science has begun to take a closer look at how the minds of our dogs work, dog psychology has become a topic of extreme interest among researchers. Some of their findings have begun to filter down to canine professionals and dog guardians, prompting those sceptics to view their dogs in a slightly different light, and those who never doubted their dogs experienced emotion to say ‘I knew it!’
To those that still doubt, we can now point to the work of the neuroscientist Gregory Berns. Utilising the power of positive reinforcement based training, he has gathered a whole team of different dogs. These dogs have learned to wear ear protectors and sit still with their chins on a special rest so that functional MRI scans can run while they are awake. The changes in their brains can be monitored in real time. The reactions taking place inside their brains can be observed while they are exposed to sights and smells of those familiar to them, humans and canine, and those they don’t know. Dr Bern has been able to observe the emotional response of these dogs to those stimuli.
There are many similarities between human and canine brains. Among the differences that do exist are the facts that human brains have a larger and more developed cerebral cortex relative to brain size than dogs, while the have a far more developed olfactory processing area, giving them their much-lauded ability to detect and process scent. Despite these differences, many of the basic structures and systems are much the same on both species, in particular the limbic system, one of the first brain systems evolved, and a large part of how emotions are processed and expressed. The existence of these structures in the canine brain is another irrefutable piece of evidence that dog psychology is a valid subject, that dogs do feel emotions.
The understanding that dog psychology exists and dogs do feel emotions does not mean that they feel all of them. Dogs develop all of the emotions they will experience by between 4 and 6 months old, depending on how fast their breed matures, including all the basic emotions like love, anger, disgust, joy and fear. They do not progress past the emotional capacity of a human child of around 2.5 years old, meaning they do not experience the more complex emotions, like pride, shame or guilt. No, your dog does not feel guilty if you come home and there is a mess on the floor. What dogs do know is that sometimes their human comes in angry as soon as they step inside the door. The dog is not ashamed or guilty; he is trying to appease the human’s anger. He cannot associate that with the fact he needed to toilet and could not get outside, or the cushion he was playing with because he was bored exploded stuffing everywhere.
Dog psychology is still a relatively new subject to many people around dogs. For the sake of understanding them and improving our relationship and bond with them, it is one that we should all spend some time studying.