Does it smell weird in here to you?
You know what I’m talking about. That nagging feeling that something smells “different,” but you just can’t put a finger on it. This has been my life for the last three days. Day after day, I’d enter the living room and think, “Did it always smell like that in here? It smells different, right? What is that!?”
On the fourth day, I finally sat down on the couch to read a book. On the coffee table before me sat a bowl of chestnuts. They had yet to be roasted. “Chestnuts don’t have a smell,” I thought. To the right of the chestnuts, the remote. Electronics, also void of smell (although my Game Boy got moldy, and that smelled). Then, I saw it. Next to the remote sat the biggest, most obvious thing on the table, the centerpiece you might say. A large, overripe cantaloupe. It had been there for 6 days and with the radiator pumping out heat (because it is so cold!), the cantaloupe was starting to mush, and that mush was permeating the air and my nostrils. How could I miss it? It was the most prominent thing in the room. Yet day after day, I missed that the gnarly cantaloupe was behind the new stench.
That’s how I feel about dogs. Not that they are starting to smell (although some of them might be), but that despite them being major parts of our lives, we can overlook the important bits.
I left 2013 by posing a question: How Well Do You Know Your Dog? Part 1. The answer: If judging by smell, you know your dog pretty well. In one study, people could identify the smell of their dog compared to an unknown dog in a “smell test.” I finished Part 1 suggesting that while we might be attuned to some nuanced bits of our dogs — like their smell — we’re not attuned to all parts of them, like behavior. I’ll explain.
Is Snoopy happy?
In a study by Wan et al. (2012), participants watched short video clips of dogs (some of which you can view at Dr. Wan’s website here). They then rated the dog’s emotional state and noted which body parts tipped them off. Because the videos had no sound, participants had to rely on dog behavior to label a dog as, say, fearful or happy. And these videos were not just any videos. They had been pre-screened by dog behavior experts (listed below) whose schooling trains them to look at animal behavior and make science-based assessments. Because Wan and her colleagues wanted to know whether our perception of emotions in dogs is shaped by our experience with dogs, study participants were grouped as having little or no experience with dogs, having lived with a dog at some point, or working with dogs for more or less than ten years.
We know happy! But…
Wan and colleagues found that happy dogs were easiest to identify. Even people with little dog experience could watch a dog frolicking in the snow or rolling joyfully on its back and describe that dog as happy.
But fear was different. Study participants who were dog professionals did a better job identifying fear compared to both dog owners and people with little dog experience. The authors suggest that “professional experience with dogs aids proficiency in interpretations of fearful behavior.” It didn’t matter how many years the dog professionals had spent working with dogs; they had the same proficiency in identifying fear.
So why did dog professionals do so much better in identifying fear? One reason could be that professionals looked at more dog body parts for clues, such as the eyes, ears, mouth and tongue, while non-professionals looked at fewer body parts, focusing primarily on legs, paws and tails. More details in the figure provided by Wan et al. (2012).
The researchers summarize: “The results of the current study are among the first to demonstrate that the perception of an emotion in dogs can be associated with human observers’ level of dog experience.”
While many of us love dogs to pieces (Buzzfeed reminds me of this on a daily basis), noticing and interpreting their subtle behaviors can take practice. That’s okay! Behavior observation can be learned.
Keeping an eye out for fear
Even if you live with the most happy go lucky dog on the planet, fear should still be on your radar, especially if your dog ever interacts with other dogs. Recognizing fear in another dog can help you give that dog space; their owner can take it from there.
What does fear look like? It can include a wide variety of body parts and body postures. Wan and colleagues explain, “…fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size – crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs.”
Maybe, in certain contexts, you notice fearful behaviors in your own dog and want to help decrease it. Like gymnasts, fear is flexible. Just as dogs can sensitize to stimuli, so too can they habituate. With classical- and operant-conditioning techniques, behavior management, and maybe some professional assistance (see below), dogs can have a modified outlook on life. What does a modified outlook look like? Check out Masey’s progress over at Reactive Champion.
Sometimes we just can’t piece it together that the cantaloupe smells. But of course, a trained fruit expert would exclaim, “Julie! Your cantaloupe is rotting.” You see where I’m going with this. Sometimes dogs are fearful, and the clues are right in front of us, like a rotting cantaloupe. Learn to recognize dog fear behavior. This is a blog about dogs after all. Not cantaloupe.
Photo: a muddy dog…..is a happy dog via bambe1964; National. Flickr Creative Commons
References & Recommended Reading
Companion Animal Psychology. 2013. Review of Wan et al. (2012). Does Experience Help People Recognize Emotion in Dogs?
Goldman, J. 2012. What Is Classical Conditioning? (And Why Does It Matter?). The Thoughtful Animal
Goldman, J. 2012. What Is Operant Conditioning? (and How Does It Explain Driving Dogs?). The Thoughtful Animal
Thompson, C. Reactive Champion Blog.
This article first appeared on DogSpies, Scientific American. Used with permission.