Ever apologize to your unconditionally affectionate canine because you yelled as she spilled the water bowl… or, over compensate for the aloofness a feline displays after your extended stay away… only to ponder your own behavior: it’s just an animal?
According to Carl Safina and many scientists… all vertebrate animals – mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish – are, to varying degrees, sentient. A rich and varied collection of research has made the evidence impossible to dismiss.
Our ability to understand beloved pets, as well as animals in general, may begin with the recognition of outdated linguistics, or specifically the labels we use to identify their emotions. Examples include humans love, animals bond, or humans are jealous, animals are territorial. According to Dr. Safina, to appreciate emotions of the animals we must acknowledge that animals have consciousness. We humans share many common traits with other animals, cognitively and emotionally (and otherwise).
Our most popular domestic darlings are currently teaching scientists about cognition and emotion, and how we can learn from their abilities:
During a recent visit to the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna, I watched a dog select symbols on a computer screen by touching it with his nose. In another room, dogs placed their heads on a chin-rest to watch images projected on a computer screen. These are not purpose-bred “lab dogs,” but happy pets recruited for the studies. The chin-rest apparatus has been used to show that dogs, like us, glance first to the left side of a human face, where our bilateral brains display more emotion. Thus, dogs get a quick read of our moods and intentions. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and like us, dogs probably are unaware they are doing it. Neither they nor we regard a dog’s face this way, which makes sense because dogs’ emotions are expressed uniformly on their faces. The wag of a dog’s tail also contains subtle cues to their moods. Led by Giorgio Vallortigara of the University of Trento, Italian researchers found that dogs remained relaxed when they saw films of dogs whose tails were wagging predominantly to the right, but they became anxious if the tail wagged more to the left.
At Emory University, scientists are using positive reinforcement to train pet dogs to remain motionless inside an fMRI machine, allowing scientists to monitor brain activity while the dogs react to visual stimuli. Preliminary studies show brain reward centers light up when dogs see a hand signal that is normally followed by something good (a food treat), but not for a neutral hand signal. Similarly, when presented with five scents (self, familiar human, strange human, familiar dog, strange dog), dogs’ brains registered the strongest delight in response to the familiar human. It appears the notion that the dog is “man’s best friend” cuts both ways.
Today, scientists are asking questions about animals’ inner lives like never before, and their toolkit for probing such questions is growing more sophisticated. As findings emerge, we gain a more enlightened perspective of the diverse expression of animal emotions.
Once we experience the delight of a scratched canine belly or enthusiasm of a feline chasing a string, recognizing emotions expressed by an animal becomes more human!