Few who have lived with dogs would deny that dogs have feelings. Taking a cue from his great friend Darwin, who spoke of conscience in the dog, George Romanes wrote that "the emotional life of the dog is highly developed -- more highly, indeed, than that of any other animal." (He did not include the human animal, though perhaps he should have done so.)
Of course dogs have feelings, and we have no trouble acknowledging most of them. Joy, for example. Can anything be as joyous as a dog? Bounding ahead, crashing into the bushes while out on a walk, happy, happy, happy. Conversely, can anything be as disappointed as a dog when you say, "No, we are not going for a walk"? Down he flops onto the floor, his ears fall, he looks up, showing the whites of his eyes, with a look of utter dejection. Pure joy, pure disappointment.
But are this joy and disappointment identical to what humans mean when we use these words? What dogs do, the way they behave, even the sounds they make, seem instantaneously translatable into human emotional terms. When a dog is rolling in fresh-cut grass, the pleasure on her face is unmistakable. No one could be wrong in saying that what she is feeling is akin to what any of us (though less often, perhaps) may feel. The words used to describe the emotion may be wrong, our vocabulary imprecise, the analogy imperfect, but there is also some deep similarity that escapes nobody. My dog may appear to feel joy and sorrow much the way I do, and the appearance here is critical: We often have no more to go on when it comes to our fellow humans.
All dog caretakers (just another word for companion and friend) have marveled at the exuberant greeting their dogs give them after a brief absence. Sasha twirls around in delight, squealing and making extraordinary sounds. What accounts for this display of unbounded pleasure in our return? We tend to explain it by assuming a kind of stupidity: The dog thought I was gone forever. Dogs, we say, have no sense of time. As Robert Kirk of the Cornell Veterinary School once put it to me, dogs don't watch the clock. Every minute is forever. Everything is for good. Out means gone. In other words, when dogs do not behave as we do, we assume it to be irrational behavior. Yet a lover is entranced to see the beloved again after even a brief absence -- and dogs are all about love.
Another explanation for dogs' delight in our return may be found in the way in which puppies greet their mother. As soon as the mother appears, the puppies crowd around her, eager to nurse or expecting her to vomit food for them. Wolves have a greeting ceremony during which they wag their tails, lick one another, and bite the muzzles of other wolves. The pleasure of the puppies may be a vestige of this ceremony, as John Paul Scott and J. L. Fuller suggest.
Soon after she joined the family, Sasha was sitting next to me one evening as I worked on an early draft of this chapter. I had been alone all day, working. There were just the two of us sitting in the living room, and it was very quiet. I looked over at Sasha and noticed that she was looking at me. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the thought: There is another being in this room, another consciousness. There is somebody here besides me. What, though, was Sasha thinking? Why did she suddenly glance up at me? Was she just checking to make sure I was still there, that I had nothing else in mind? Or was it a more complicated thought, one that was imbued (as many thoughts are) with feelings -- affection, for example, or perhaps anxiety? She looked so peaceful, lying there. Was she feeling something like tranquillity? For certain Hindu philosophers, tranquillity is the master emotion, the one that underlies all others -- it has been so fascinating to me that it was the subject of my Ph.D. thesis at Harvard. Perhaps I was merely projecting my own feelings on to Sasha. It is hard to know.
As Sasha sat quietly next to me, looking contented, every so often sighing with what appeared to be contentment, I wondered what she was actually feeling. How I would love to be her for just one moment, to feel what she was feeling. I have had this desire, more than once, with people, too. Does one ever know what another human being is actually feeling? It may be no harder to find out the truth about feelings in dogs than it is in people.
The question of how we know what we feel, let alone what somebody else feels, is beset with difficulties. Speaking to other people, we often use shorthand: "I feel sad" or "I feel happy." But more often than not what we feel is an emotional state for which there are no precise verbal equivalents. Think of how we restrict ourselves with language. "I'm depressed," we say. Yet that is only the vaguest hint of a more complex set of feelings. It is probably the same for dogs; their joy is at least as complicated (in the sense that we are not always certain of its components; perhaps memory of earlier pleasure plays a role and perhaps it is entirely bound to the moment) and hard to define.
While it is clear that we can learn a great deal about dogs from observing their behavior in terms of purely external actions, I think it is time to recognize that we could understand much more from observing how dogs feel. Moreover, we could learn something about our own feelings as well. For in the realm of feelings we can have no sense of superiority. After a lifetime of affectionate regard for dogs and many years of close observation and reflection, I have reached the conclusion that dogs feel more than I do (I am not prepared to speak for other people). They feel more, and they feel more purely and more intensely. By comparison the human emotional landscape seems murky with subterfuge and ambivalence and emotional deception, intentional or not. In searching for why we are so inhibited compared with dogs, perhaps we can learn to be as direct, as honest, as straightforward, and especially as intense in our feelings as dogs are.
Dogs Bite Their Enemies
Freud remarked on the fact that "dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations." In other words, dogs are without the ambivalence with which humans seem cursed. We love, we hate, often the same person, on the same day, maybe even at the same time. This is unthinkable in dogs, whether because, as some people believe, they lack the complexity or, as I believe, they are less confused about what they feel. It is as if once a dog loves you, he loves you always, no matter what you do, no matter what happens, no matter how much time goes by. Dogs have a prodigious memory for people they have known. Perhaps this is because they associate people with the love they felt for them, and they derive pleasure from remembering this love.
Doggie Love is Forever
Sasha is possessed by my two small kittens, Raj and Saj. The minute she sees these two tiny fur dots, she goes into hyper-alert mode. She begins to whine and to moan and to groan. She looks at me with a pleading look, as if I hold the key to helping her get what she so badly wants. She sniffs them. She follows them from room to room, whining piteously. The first night they were here, Sasha never slept at all. She lay on the floor next to their cage, crossed her feet daintily, and observed them all through the night. When I let them out, she gently put her paw on them. The cats were a little dumbfounded by the whole thing, and especially at what Sasha took to doing by the second week: She would pick one up in her mighty jaws, taking great care not to harm him, carry him into another room, deposit him somewhere, and then head off to find the other one to do the same. Seeing her carrying these little orange dots from room to room was as puzzling for me as it was evidently for the cats. Soon, however, they wanted to play. One of the cats rolled over and reached out with her little paw. Yet their interest in Sasha is mild compared to hers in them. There can be no mistaking the intensity of her interest in these kittens. The nature of this interest is another matter.
What does she want? Could it be that a maternal instinct has been awakened and Sasha wants to act as a mother to the kittens? Does she really think they are her puppies, and want to bring them into a den? Or is her interest predatory, in that she wants to eat them and is torn between her desire to listen to me ("Do not eat the kittens!") and her instincts as a predator telling her that a kitten makes a good meal? Is she merely curious, wondering if these small beings are some odd kind of puppy? Maybe she is just herding them; she is after all a shepherd.
None of these explanations is entirely satisfactory. If it were a mothering instinct at work, she would behave similarly to rabbits, say, or geese, moaning when she sees them (instead of chasing them). Moreover, Sasha has had no pups. I doubt that she wants to eat them; I can barely persuade her to eat a piece of steak. Nor is she stupid; she knows the difference between a dog and a cat. If she were herding the kittens, she would not pick them up in her mouth, nor moan and groan with some inexpressible need or feeling. The truth is that I don't know why she's so drawn to them, and nobody else knows either. It would be so much simpler if only we could ask, "Sasha, why are you so interested in these small fur balls?" "Simple, just look at how adorable they are!" Or "They look so small and helpless, I want to protect them." Or even "Beats me." Whatever the behavior means, it is clear that Sasha is filled with feeling for these little kittens. It is clear because she moans and groans and follows them from room to room, and cocks her head and looks puzzled and intrigued. That is why I say she is possessed. She wants something from them, she feels something for them, and she seems to want to express those feelings.
It is hard to empathize with her because humans generally do not walk behind kittens sighing and groaning. There does not seem to be an equivalent for us. Perhaps, then, Sasha is demonstrating to me one of my "pet theories": As well as the emotions animals and humans have in common, animals can also access emotions that humans do not share, ones different from those we know, because animals are other; they are not the same as human beings. Their senses, their experiences, open them to a totally different (or new) set of feelings of which we know little or nothing. That a whole world of canine feelings remains closed to us is an intriguing notion. Some of these feelings could be based on the dog's sensory capacities. According to one early authority, a dog can smell 100 million times better than we do. But even if the true figure is significantly less, the fact remains that when Sasha puts her nose to the ground, she becomes aware of a world about which I can only make guesses. Similarly, when Sasha cocks her ears, she hears sounds of which I am altogether unaware.
Dogs are a Social Animal
In the case of Sasha's interest in the kittens, we are dealing not with a question of superior (or inferior) sensory capacities but something else, something social. We like to assume that dogs and humans are social in very similar ways, and that therefore humans are uniquely qualified to understand whatever emotions a dog may have based on belonging (like us) to a pack. We, too, have deep interests in one another's social lives and the web of interrelations interdependence creates. We assume this is why dogs are able to understand us so well, and appear to empathize with humans from their own direct experience.
Perhaps they are so often right about human emotions because their social world is similar to ours. We are not similar to cats in the same way, and cats are not all that good at understanding us. We do not expect the same kind of sympathy from our cat as we do from our dog. A cat the size of a lion would be an animal we would approach with some hesitation. No matter what size, however, most of us would accept a reliable dog as being reliable. The German ethologist P. Leyhausen, an expert on the cat family, makes the point that nobody chose to domesticate the cat; it chose domestication itself, while nevertheless maintaining its independent nature. He believes that the cat is domestic, but not domesticated.
The German scholar Eberhard Trumler suggests that it was not wolves who joined the human fold but the opposite. He pointed out that wolves, phylogenetically older than us and superbly equipped for hunting, had no need of human help. Men, on the other hand, derive from plant-eating ancestors and are not nearly as well equipped for hunting as are wolves. In order to eat, wolves scarcely need us at all, but we could benefit from the help of wolves. It may well be that human groups followed wolf packs, waited until they had brought down a kill, then chased the wolves away. Indian wolves are often chased away from their kills by wild pigs, and the same could have been true of early humans and wolves.
The naturalist and writer Jared Diamond points out that the large mammals were all domesticated between 8000 and 2500 b.c. Domestication began with the dog, then moved to sheep, goats, and pigs, and ended with Arabian and Bactrian camels and water buffalos. He believes that since 2500 b.c. there have been no significant additions. Why this is so is a question that has never been answered.
Although other animals have been domesticated -- primarily the cat, the horse, certain birds, rabbits, cattle -- no other animal (wild, tame, or domesticated) carries such meaning for humans as the dog. We feel strongly about such nondomesticated animals as wolves, elephants, and dolphins (all of which can be tamed but over whose reproductive life we exercise little control), but our direct interactions with them are much more restricted. By raising all these domesticated animals over centuries, we have altered their genetic makeup to make them conform to our desires. We control their reproductive functions and breed them to suit our needs, just as we control their territory and food supply. Juliet Clutton-Brock, an expert on domestication, believes, as Darwin did, that only humans benefit from the association. She quotes Darwin to the effect that "as the will of man thus comes into play we can understand how it is that domestic races of animals and cultivated races of plants often exhibit an abnormal character, as compared with natural species; they have been modified not for their own benefit, but for that of man."
Michael Fox, a dog expert and Humane Society vice president (in charge of bioethics and farm animal protection), points out that rapid maturation, disease resistance, high fertility, and longevity, all of which we foster in domesticated animals, would in nature produce overabundance of certain species, which would cause a shift in the ecological balance (and possibly the extinction of other species). Many of these domesticated animals, even when they appear to be semi-wild, are dependent on humans and require considerable attention. Even hardy hill sheep still need to be dipped, wormed, and given supplementary winter feed.
Even among domesticated animals, the dog stands out as perhaps the only fully domesticated species. Goats are domesticated, and can be tame, but they rarely make intimate companions. Pigs probably could, if given half a chance. H. Hediger, the director of the Zoological Gardens of Zurich, writes that the dog, basically a domesticated wolf, was the first creature with which humans formed intimate bonds that were intense on both sides. According to Hediger, no other animal stands in such intimate psychological union with us; only the dog seems capable of reading our thoughts and "reacting to our faintest changes of expression or mood." German dog trainers use the term Gefühlsinn (a feeling for feelings) to talk about the fact that a dog can sense our moods.
Dogs and Emotions
Voltaire, who knew about the emotions of dogs, used the example of a lost dog to refute the thesis of Descartes that dogs are merely machines, incapable of any kind of suffering. He responded to Descartes in his Dictionnaire philosophique with:
Judge this dog who has lost his master, who has searched for him with mournful cries in every path, who comes home agitated, restless, who runs up and down the stairs, who goes from room to room, who at last finds his beloved master in his study, and shows him his joy by the tenderness of cries, by his leaps, by his caresses. Barbarians seize this dog who so prodigiously surpasses man in friendship. They nail him to a table and dissect him alive to show you the mesenteric veins. You discover in him all the same organs of feeling that you possess. Answer me, mechanist, has nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal in order that he should not feel? Does he have nerves to be impassive?
The reason why humans and dogs have such an intense relationship is that there is a mutual ability to understand one another's emotional responses. The joie de vivre of a dog may be greater than our own, but it is immediately recognizable as a feeling that we humans enjoy as well.
The closeness between dogs and people is taken for granted and, at the same time, seen as something immensely mysterious. Naturally I feel close to my dogs, but who are these dogs? They are Sima, Sasha, and Rani, of course, that much is simple and obvious.
Yet I will often look at them lying in my study as I work and be overwhelmed with a sense of otherness. Just who are these beings lying here, so close to me, and yet also so remote? They are easily grasped, and they are unfathomable. I know them as well as I know my closest friend, and yet I have no idea who they are.
Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. ©1997. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About The Author
Jeffrey Masson has a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard University and graduated from the Toronto Psychoanalytic Institute. He was briefly projects director at the Sigmund Freud Archives; the documents he found there on Freud's approach to child abuse created a major controversy in psychoanalysis. He has written more than a dozen books, including most recently the national bestseller When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals (with Susan McCarthy). Visit his website at www.jeffreymasson.com.