Dogs and Human Emotions
This article describes some of the work I have been doing with my own dogs, studying dogs and human emotions. The work has involved fellow therapists studying the relationship between our emotions and the dogs' behaviour.
There was a point in my life when I had become a very nervous driver. It was at that time that I first noticed how my dogs are affected by my feelings. I was driving on the motorway and plucking up the courage to overtake the car in front of me. My dog Jack started to stand up on the back seat, nervously looking for danger. The only thing he could have been responding to was me - there had been no loud noises or any other distractions.
I became curious and more observant of my dogs' behaviours and possible explanations. In the early days of attending counselling my Labrador, Archie, would accompany me. At the end of one session Archie started to lick the hand and arm of the counsellor. It got me thinking and at our next session I shared my thoughts with the counsellor, Terry. I was wondering whether Archie's behaviour could have been linked to something that was going on for Terry. He admitted that prior to our session something had happened that had annoyed him immensely and he had still been holding onto that anger. Were dogs able to sense and respond to 'stuck feelings'?
As a result I decided to video some meetings between myself and others, in the presence of one of my dogs and see what happened. The other person was either my counselling supervisor or friends who also happened to be therapists (hypnotherapist, energy therapist, life coach).
Sessions were either the supervisor's counselling rooms or in my own home. So far, all the dogs involved have been mine. I try not to restrict their movement in the session, other than to keep them in the same room.
The conversations were videoed. Occasionally, if the dogs do something noticeably different during the session we might stop and share what is going on for us, exploring if we can identify anything the dogs could be responding to.
Its difficult to know from sure but we have found possible evidence of a link between how people are feeling in the moment and how the dog is behaving.
During one session with my supervisor I was talking about something from my past that brought up strong feelings for me. As I started to feel uncomfortable, Logan who was quietly curled up on the floor, started to whine and stood up. When I allowed the tears to flow Logan settled back down again.
Some time later, as the session moved on and I had stopped crying, Logan walked up to the supervisor. He put his front paws on Terry's shoulders, and pushed his chest into his chest. Terry came out of 'supervisor' role and shared how he was feeling. He had been touched by the emotion that I had shown but he was holding onto it, in his own chest. If a counsellor experiences emotions during a session he or she will tend to notice and hold onto their own feelings, so that they can focus their attention on the client. Although Terry was sitting there, as far as I could tell, quietly listening, Logan seemed to be reacting to the emotions he was holding onto.
There have been other occasions when Terry has received a face or hand-licking which has coincided with himholding onto some feeling.
Other incidents in my home with therapist friends, also seem to show a pattern. In particular, if Archie is licking someone's hand it seems to link to something they want to say that they might be holding back.
I have also noticed that the dogs seem to be able to feel when you are thinking or talking about them. My Labrador tends to pace the room a lot with a cushion in his mouth when he feels unsettled. On one occasion he had eventually settled down while I was talking. Then I started speaking about my feelings for my dogs. The moment I turned my attention to him and the subject of guilt, he got up again and started pacing. It seemed as if he was feeling my attention as a pressure on him.
At the beginning of a session any of the dogs can take quite a while to settle down. To some extent it depends on the personality of the dog. It also seems to reflect how long it takes me to settle into the session. One time I felt really disorganised about what I wanted to explore. Jack, the Hamiltonstövare, was with me. He had been pacing the room and whining for much of the session. I had tried to ignore this at the time and he had eventually stopped. When I played the video back afterwards, I realised that he had relaxed just at the time when I had got into a flow with my own thoughts in the session.
These are examples of the observations and tentative conclusions I have drawn. There is no way to be certain but to me they suggest that our dogs do feel, and act on, what the people around them are feeling.
I think it's an important line of study when so many us dog owners struggle with our dogs and look for ways to change their behaviour. What if we looked at how WE are feeling? Would it make a difference?
I do find it quite compelling, if maybe a little threatening, to appreciate that the dog lying beside us might be our very own emotional health detector!