Canine doctor says dogs are capable of feeling complex emotions

Dog Friendship Talk
A talk on canine relationships on Sunday at Unleashed in Evanston, a training and day care facility for the dogs. (Abhinanda Datta/MEDILL)

By Abhinanda Datta

Dogs are capable of forming friendships, and they have remarkable social and cognitive abilities, along with the mental capacity to keep track of several different social partners and behave differently with each one depending on their age and sex,  Becky Trisko, Ph.D., said.

 Trisko said that when she started working on her dissertation, dominance was a contentiously debated topic in the dog world.

“For a long time, people had assumed that dogs form dominant relationships,” said Trisko on Sunday at Unleashed in Evanston, a day care and training facility that she founded 10 years ago. “Some people like Cesar Milan assumed that dominance was an important part of every relationship that dogs formed — whether it was with humans or other dogs, while other dog trainers rejected that assumption and said that dominance did not apply to dogs at all.

“When most people hear of dominance, they think of a pecking order which comes from chickens where the guy on top beats up the guy below and takes his food, but when animal societies get more complex and group members form social bonds with each other, dominance becomes more nuanced.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Trisko got a job at a dog day care center and she was immediately fascinated by the relationships that the dogs had with each other. Back then, she said  there were no studies on how dogs relate to their other canine friends, and so she set out to collect some data.

She studied a group of 24 dogs at Unleashed and recorded three kinds of agonistic behavior – dominance, submission and aggression.

Trisko said: “These communicate status and should be unidirectional, which means one way — one animal displays it to the other but not the other way around. Dominance relationships should always be linear in the group.”

With the help of videos, she demonstrated the three kinds of behaviors. She said that submissive behavior of dogs can be of two kinds — active submission where the submissive dog licks the muzzle of the dominant dog and passive submission, where the dog rolls over and exposes his belly for another dog.

“The dominant dogs have a stiff, tall posture and are often seen humping or biting the muzzle of the other dogs, while the submissive dog has a crouched posture,” Trisko said. “The third kind is aggression where there is snapping and showing of teeth, which sometimes lead to fights.

“Dominance is more about a relationship than it is about the personality of a dog.”

Trisko concluded that dogs form friendly bonds among each other, often demonstrated by play fighting or by mimicking the behaviors that are usually observed during courtships.

“Given the complexity of their social relationships, dogs are probably capable of complex social emotions like love, jealousy and loneliness,” Trisko said. “It is very important to acknowledge that they have feelings too and friendships increase well being of the dogs, triggering the release of a hormone called oxytocin.”

Maggie Fahner said that Trisko’s talk proved beneficial and she gained an understanding about canine behavior

“I came today because I am still train dogs and any information I can get on understanding canine communication is very helpful,” said Fahner, an instructor at The Puppy Professor.

“I really learned a lot — knowing which dogs should or should not go together and being able to recognize red flags for aggressive behaviors. This is critical for the safety of the dogs and it is helpful for them if we can interpret what they are communicating to us.”

Photo at top:  Becky Trisko discusses canine relationships on Sunday at Unleashed in Evanston.(Abhinanda Datta/MEDILL)