I’m just back from the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. I was one of several speakers discussing the Human/Animal Bond at NIH’s STEP Forum, a monthly meeting for all NIH staff designed to educate staff about issues relating to science in the public health. It was very much worth the travel; the talks given by zoo-anthropologist Dr. James Serpell, Dr. Sandra Barker and Dr. Joan Esnayra were each worth the trip alone. Dr. Serpell discussed historical and cross-cultural aspects of the human-animal bond, and dispelled the myths that “pets” are only luxuries indulged in by industrial societies and that people who love animals do so from some social pathology that prevents them from “normal” relationships with other people. His books In the Company of Animals and The Domestic Dog are classics, you might want to look them up.
Dr. Barker, a Professor of Psychiatry and active participant using animal in therapy, spoke about the impact of Animal Assisted Interventions (distinguishing between Animal Assisted Therapy, in which the animal works with a licensed therapist toward a specific goal for the client and Animal Assisted Activities, in which animals are brought in to comfort and alleviate stress–both vital efforts) and her ongoing research projects at VCU to elucidate the context in which AAT and AAA can be clinically valuable.
Dr. Esnayra founded the Psychiatric Service Dog Society and gave a compelling speech about the effective use of assistance dogs for those with mental illness (instead of physical disabilities). She is absolutely up front about living herself with Bipolar Disorder and PTSD, and has 2 beautiful (and beautifully behaved) Rhodesian Ridgebacks who work with her (and attended the forum). We also met Mike Townsend and Donna Dellaglio, who have a Helper Monkey who has ‘changed their lives’ . Mike has severe MS, is confined to a wheel chair and no longer has the use of his arms. Kathy, their capuchin, allows him to watch television, turn lots of equipment off and on, and most importantly, use the computer. “Kathy gave Mike his life back” is a pretty inspiring thing to hear at the end of a morning on the importance of animals in our lives.
I spoke second, after Serpell, arguing that the profound love that many of us have for our dogs is a biological phenomenon that deserves more scientific attention. In my talk I speculated, as I did in the book For the Love of a Dog, that one of the reasons we become so intensely attached to dogs is that dogs have such expressive faces and as Darwin argued over a century ago, their expressions of fear, anger and happiness are very much like our own.
Those comments were soundly criticized by a veterinary behaviorist in the audience who argued that I was being problematically anthropomorphic to 1) make any association between the expressions of people and the expressions of dogs and 2) use the word ‘anger’ in association with dogs. I can’t quote the person exactly, but the point was that anger is a human construct, and it is wrong to attribute it to dogs.
I was (and am) fascinated by her criticisms. First off, the evidence continues to grow about the continuum of the biology of emotion in mammals.. we share the same basic neuro-anatomy related to emotions, the same neuro-physiology related to emotions (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin to name a few) and many of the same behavioral reactions. Emotions are such primitive things, it always interests me that ascribing them to non-human animals makes people uncomfortable. Of course, there’s a huge difference between how an emotion is processed in the brain of a human and that of a dog, but the glass is half full as well as half empty, and the biology of emotions is far more similar in dogs and people than it is different. In addition, I’d love to claim credit for the notion that the expressions of emotion on the faces of dogs and people are related, but since Darwin wrote about it over a hundred years ago I don’t think I’d better! Unless you believe that people and other animals have virtually no biological connection of any kind, it is sound science to compare the expressions of 2 highly social mammals who use subtle visual signals to maintain social harmony.
I am especially interested in the expressed concern that anger is “human construct.” I’ve heard that before from several different fields (mainly psychology and from other veterinary behaviorists), and yet… anger, or ‘rage’ as it is usually called in the literature, is considered one of the most basic and primal of emotions. Jaak Panskeep, the author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions calls rage one of the “core” emotions of all mammals. Truly, you can’t attribute fear to a dog and deny then that a dog could get angry… those two emotions are too closely tied together in so many, many ways.
I believe completely and without question that dogs can experience anger, the biology to support that is overwhelming. However.. and this is a big HOWEVER… I also think that anger is one of the emotions that people most mis-understand in dogs. Owners often tell trainers or behaviorists that their dog defecated on the carpet because he was “angry” that he’d been left, when the motivating emotions was either fear of being left alone, or none in particular, because the dog simply wasn’t house trained! I suspect that although dogs can get angry, (for example when frustrated by being pulled away from the window while barking at a passer by), dogs actually experience anger very very little compared to humans. I write more about this in For the Love of a Dog… and am inspired to write more in a magazine article somewhere, sometime . . .
But right now I’d better get home. Lassie and Willie have been waiting for me to come home and start the holidays with them, and I don’t want them to get angry at me if I come home late. (Please, oh please know that I am kidding and that no, honestly, truly, I really do not believe that my dogs will experience anger if I get home later than I am hoping to. . .
Meanwhile, have a great holiday. I hope you have a lot to be thankful for. I certainly do and I am overwhelmed with gratitude because of it.