For Valentines Day, I wanted to write something about the unconditional love that we get from our dogs. I wondered if there was any scientific data that underscored what we as dog lovers already know. The data was mixed, contentious and confusing to say the least.
It seems that the classic philosophers were somewhat divided on the subject of canine emotion. Socrates (469 — 399 BC) saw the dog as little more than a machine, incapable of either love or intelligence. The first mention of canine emotion among the classics is the story of Odysseus’ dog Argus who mourned his master’s absence for over twenty years, refusing to die until Odysseus returned home from the Trojan wars.
We must remember that classic philosophers did not hold emotional response in high esteem. Human emotions were considered suspect, untrustworthy impulses that could rob a man of his ability to think.
There is still a good deal of contention in modern science regarding dog’s ability to experience emotions. Some researchers still hold fast to the idea that any emotion we see in our dogs is projected there by us. These scientists claim that dogs operate on instincts and the emotional response we believe they possess is nothing more than the dog responding in a way that pleases us in order for the dog to receive food and other incentives.
There is some recent research that supports the claim that dogs feel emotions in a way that is comparable to human emotional response. Some of this research is physiological. Science has identified, in the brains of humans and dogs, certain receptors, chemicals and processes directly related to emotive brain activity. On other fronts, a researcher at Sierra Nevada College has identified a form of panting that is the canine equivalent to human laughter. An audio recording of the canine laughter was found to reduce stress and encourage playfulness when the tape was played for dogs living in a rescue shelter.
Regardless of what science tells us, those of us who spend a lot of time with dogs know that they have emotions. Canine emotion is at the very foundation of our reason for keeping dogs. Just because science can’t prove it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. How do I know my dog loves me? I know it intuitively! I guess science still has some problems with intuition too.