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.

Nishi’s classical expression of “Are you okay?”

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 impa