Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

November 4, 2013

Tidbits: Decoding your dog's emotions

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — If you've ever looked into the eyes of your four-legged best friend when you walk in the door after a day at work and seen the love and happiness there, you have no doubt dogs have emotions. If you've slighted your pet somehow, such as daring to come home smelling like another dog or paying more attention to the TV than the little ball of fur snuggling beside you on the couch, you also know dogs can have their feelings hurt.

But, I suppose it's nice to have science back up what every dog owner has experienced on a daily basis. It's good to know that you're not crazy and that yes, you really did just hurt your precious pet's feelings because you laughed at his Halloween costume. He didn't want to wear it anyway, and then you laugh? He isn't laughing so he knows, you're laughing at him, not with him. And he doesn't appreciate it one bit.

He'll pout. Maybe he'll even act out. Why? Because he's not exactly pleased with you, owner, and he's going to show you that he's feeling hurt and anger.

On the other end, if you take a dog that has been mistreated, neglected, and just starved for attention and affection and give it a safe place, a little security and some attention, he'll knock you over when you come home, ready to give you doggie kisses galore. Why? Because he feels that love and kindness you've given him, and he wants to show you he feels the same way.

It turns out, dogs do have feelings, too. Researchers using MRI scans of dogs who are not sedated found dogs use the same area of the brain as humans do for feeling emotions. It's the same part of the brain we use when we anticipate things we like, such as love, food or money.

In fact, Gregory Berns, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, says dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. So I suppose there's some support for those that baby talk to their dog.

The emotional center of the brain, the caudate, sits between the brainstem and the cortex and is rich with feel-good dopamine receptors. The MRIs found the caudate increased in response to hand signals for food and to smells of familiar humans.

There's also a lot of research going on to decode the way dogs communicate their feelings. Take the wagging tail, long considered to be a sign of friendliness. Turns out a wagging tail can mean all sorts of things. Modern Dog Magazine suggests a fast-wagging tail can indicate excitement, like that felt by a kid on Christmas morning, but a low, fast-wagging tail can indicate nervousness. Is it running toward you full speed ahead? You might want to get out of the way. That dog means business, and not of the friendly and playful variety. If it's running toward you with a rocking horse gait, rocking back and forth, it's being playful, but if it's a big dog, you can still end up getting hurt. Even just looking at how the dog is standing and interacting can tell you so much about what's going on in that cute little noggin. A dog that stands up squarely on all four feet is cool, calm and collected. Ready to spring forward? He's feeling playful and wants to interact. But a dog that looks ready to spring away is probably not feeling very confident.

And when your dog jumps up to sit next to you on the couch, lays his head in your lap and lets go of a deep breath in a contented sigh, you know he's saying, "I'm so glad you're my human. I love you."

I don't need a scientific study to tell me that.

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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesdays. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.