Emotional transference from pet parents to their dogs
I have been wanting to write again for a while but we’ve been caught up in so many changes at BHARCS that I have not had a chance to get around to doing it. But, I am now doing some extensive research for my book, swimming in such fascinating material that I feel if I don’t write now and tell you all about it, I am going to burst. I do not want to wait until the book gets published to express these ideas and so I am left with no recourse but to blog. Here goes!
Do our emotions transfer to our dogs and if so, how does it impact our relationship with them?
The last few days have had me pouring over several scientific studies on dogs, animal cognition, the brain, movement of dogs etc. They are all fascinating, but one in particular blew my mind. We all know that dogs can read our emotions. However, did you know that they can even detect emotion from mere photographs of people? That fascinated me, but that was not just it. A team of researchers from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, headed by Corsin Müller, conducted a study that showed that not only can dogs recognize facial patterns from photographs to determine emotions of people, they can actually do so by looking at pictures of just the top or bottom half of the face (Müller et al., 2015). Think about that! If you smiled at someone and did not truly mean it, your dog would know! Müller says, “Our results suggest that the dogs realized that a smiling mouth means the same thing as smiling eyes.” What’s more is that there is also evidence to prove that dogs can smell our emotion (D’Aniello et al., 2017) and can hear it in our voices too (Albuquerque et al., 2016).
"If you smiled at someone and did not truly mean it, your dog would know!"
While the engineer in me is utterly fascinated with all these studies, the dog mom in me feels like saying, “Meh! I don’t need science to tell me that my dogs get me”. On days that I feel anxious, my husband points out to me that my anxiety is affecting my dogs. Sure enough, when I look at them, I can see that both my dogs are deeply affected. However they both express it differently. One opens her eyes very wide and stares, while the other knits her eyebrows. One tries to stay as far as possible from me, while the other tries to interact with me. One gets jumpy and skittish. The other gets mopey and sulky. You are free to guess which dog does what. The point is that it impacts them and I can only imagine how much more scary it is for them. Unlike me, who knows the source of my anxiety and in some ways am empowered to change the situation, my dogs don’t understand what this is about, when it might end or what it might mean to their lives. I would not be surprised if more studies into animal cognition reveal that the emotional response dogs have to human emotion is in some way amplified in dogs.
That brings us to the implication of all this emotional transference on our dogs and it’s impact on our relationship with them. Sadly, it’s not good news here. We humans have long lives and an abundance of individual and collective wisdom to teach us ways to cope with the emotional roller coaster that is life today. Our dogs, unfortunately don’t seem to have gotten there yet. They are easily overwhelmed, resulting in hyperactive, scared or skittish dogs. When I interact with pet parents, it isn’t difficult to guess what “behavioural problems” their dogs might have, just by evaluating the people who care for the dog. Hyperactive people are likely to have hyperactive dogs. Loud people are likely to have scared dogs. Seems like this is not hard to explain, given the science behind it.
If we are inadvertently impacting our dogs behaviour, sometimes negatively, the logical next question would be to ask if we can shield our dogs from it all. That’s where it stops being scientific and becomes very personal. As an engineer, the answer seems obvious - do not expose your dog to your emotional extremes. However, as a person with severe anxiety issues myself, I will be the first to toss that solution out the window. I have been working hard on myself to address my anxiety issues and that has been helping my dogs, but I do know it’s going to take time. Meanwhile, I find it incredibly useful for the whole family to just start tuning into the dog’s reactions. My husband is very supportive and every time we laugh out loud or have an argument or one of us is getting agitated, we try to throw a quick glance at the dogs and articulate out loud what the dog might be feeling. While it has helped us shield our dogs to some extent, it has more importantly helped me slow down during emotional upheavals. I try to mask my anxiety by humming or smiling. I know now that I am not fooling my dogs (because my eyes are not smiling), but I also know it eventually helps me get past my anxiety. This is the point at which I begin to wonder if I am doing this for my dogs or if they are making me do this for myself.
I set up BHA to educate people about Turid’s philosophies. One of the pillars of her philosophy is our willingness and ability to read our dogs. In a later blog, I will delve a bit deeper into how we can read our dogs better. But today, I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on how so very few of our emotions get past our dogs and how deeply it impacts them. Most people reading this blog, most of my clients and my students are madly in love with their dogs and are willing to move mountains for their dogs. The good news is that we don’t need to move mountains to make our dogs happy. We only need to figure out how to make ourselves happy. The bad news though is that some of the “problem behaviours” that we complain about, are possibly the unintended side effects of our own emotions, how our dogs perceive it, how they interpret it and how they choose to process and express it.
Life in a city like Bangalore is intensely emotional one way or the other - the frustration of traffic, the rush from huge promotions and raises, the gastronomical pleasures of the restaurant scene, the thrill of new technology…I don’t suppose there’s any amount of curd rice and yoga that is going to get us a bit more stoic. Learning to find our own emotional balance amidst the chaos is our individual burden. I want to remind you today, while you are figuring it all out, don’t forget to pay attention to your dog. Look at your dog’s reaction often and attempt to interpret it. Discuss it with people around you, make a regular habit out of “reading your dogs”.
So! What emotion of yours does your dog react to and how? Do leave a comment on your personal experience in this matter. Let’s start talking dog!
About the Author
Sindhoor is a canine behaviour consultant, Galen myotherapist, an engineer by qualification and an educator in Bangalore, India. She is passionate about ethological studies of free ranging dogs in India. Sindhoor is the founder of BHARCS.BHARCS offers a UK-accredited level 4 diploma on canine behaviour and ethology and boasts of students from all parts of India and across the globe. Sindhoor is also the country representative for Pet Dog Trainers of Europe (PDTE). While she wears many hats, being doggy-mommy to her dogs, whom she considers her inspiration and her greatest teachers, is her favourite role.
Müller, C., Schmitt, K., Barber, A. and Huber, L. (2015). Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces. Current Biology, [online] 25(5), pp.601-605. Available at: http://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960- 9822(14)01693-5 [Accessed 3 Feb. 2018].
D’Aniello, B., Semin, G., Alterisio, A., Aria, M. and Scandurra, A. (2017). Interspecies transmission of emotional information via chemosignals: from humans to dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Animal Cognition, [online] 21(1), pp.67-78. Available at: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10071-017- 1139-x#citeas [Accessed 3 Feb. 2018].
Albuquerque, N., Guo, K., Wilkinson, A., Savalli, C., Otta, E. and Mills, D. (2016). Dogs recognize dog and human emotions. Biology Letters, [online] 12(1), p.20150883. Available at: http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/1/20150883 [Accessed 3 Feb. 2018]