Who Says Dog's Don't Feel?
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By Karen Haller - Lovelace

I have heard many people adamantly state that animals do not have feelings or that animals do not show empathy. I disagree immediately. I have been around dogs since I was born, and I have trained dogs for 25 years in several different disciplines. Canines have always been members of my family. The key is family; our dogs are treated as family members and reciprocate as members of our family. They know it too!

According to the London Hanover University CANI 213 Week 5 Application Handout, 2014, many animal species recognize if a conspecific needs help or is in some sort of emotional stress. Canines have the ability to exhibit self-awareness. With canines, their self-awareness may not be cognitive, but it is emotional. For example, a canine will recognize another canine versus a cat, not self, but a feline. This is self-awareness. The canine recognizes that it is a canine and the female over on the other side of the fence in heat is also a canine. He will want to reproduce with her. Conversely, if the canine sees a female cat in heat on the other side of the fence, he will chase it as prey, not as a member of the same species with which to mate. This is the canine self-awareness.

Altruism is associated with this self-awareness. Abrantes (2011) states that altruism is a selfish behavior in a “sophisticated form.” Altruism is learned, but the canine has a genetic, innate penchant for it (Abrantes, 2011). He further says that in a higher form, altruism in the canine is more of an attitude:  I help you now and you will help me later. This makes sense when applied to canine self-awareness. Innately, the canine will want to reproduce and propagate its species. This is a motor program born in the animal. So it is in the canine’s best interest to preserve its species through mating and defending its territory. This is self-awareness, but altruism as well. Maybe the behavior is selfish, however to make sure the canine’s offspring is born and survive is a form of altruism.

Canines have self-awareness and altruism within their own species, or intraspecies self-awareness. They also exhibit interspecies self-awareness and altruism; canines have an ability to respond to another animal’s feelings or needs (London Hanover University CANI 213 Week 5 Application Handout, 2014). It is also believed that the canine’s brain will decide to recognize emotion depending on the relationship, setting and particular circumstances in which the canine and human or other animal find themselves.  The canine’s long term memory (motor memory) kicks in and signals to the brain, “Hey, this is my owner; she is in trouble. Body, react now to save her.”

Without cognitive behavior, but with emotional self-awareness and altruism, the canine reacts to help another species. Below, I have detailed four examples of self-awareness and altruism I have witnessed and one that recently occurred while living and interacting with our canine companions.  I am documenting the fifth example as it was relayed to me by another person because it truly relates to interspecies and intraspecies self-awareness and altruism.

Roxy and the Pond Rescue

My daughter has a brown and white one-year old Border Collie named Roxy. She has been trained in some basic obedience. Roxy is full of energy and very attentive towards my daughter.

One afternoon, my daughter and Roxy went walking along the dirt road leading from our house to the water pump. The water had overflowed, leaving a large, muddy pond. When my daughter and Roxy reached the pond, they began playing with Roxy’s toy near the pond’s edge. As my daughter was inspecting the water’s depth, she got too close to the edge and fell into the water. She tried climbing out; however the dirt and clay sucked her down hard. As my daughter tried harder to climb out, the pond muck was too thick and her body was drawn down further. Roxy had been playing during the 30 second time frame before my daughter fell into the pond. The next 10 second interval before the event, Roxy had turned around retrieving the toy. My daughter was struggling within the mud, and upon seeing her distress, within the next 10 seconds, Roxy immediately jumped into the water. Roxy swam to my daughter and during the next 30 second interval; she paddled around my daughter and whined steadily. Roxy jumped out of the pond to the edge. My daughter was wearing a hoodie sweatshirt that day. Roxy grabbed the hood with her mouth and began tugging. My daughter realized Roxy was rescuing her, and she helped her dog by bending down and allowing the dog to get a better grip.

During the next 10 second interval, Roxy pulled harder on the hood. Again, my daughter tried to get out as her dog was pulling. Roxy gripped and pulled more fiercely during the next interval of 10 seconds. Finally with much tugging and gripping, my daughter was free from the muck. Roxy was still worried about my daughter however after the struggle to get her released from the pond. During the next 30 second interval, after the struggle to release her from the mud, Roxy circled my daughter who lay exhausted on the ground. When my daughter finally stood up, Roxy stopped circling her and became calm, returning to her normal demeanor.

Roxy’s self-awareness and altruism towards my daughter proves how emotionally connected canines can be towards their handlers and human companions. Selfish, maybe; devotion, definitely

Vero the Protector

Vero was my mom’s Schutzhund dog. She was always disappointed that he only earned a BH and Schutzhund 1 titles, while her other dogs earned Schutzhund 3 and FH1 titles. I always told her that Vero had other talents, maybe not in the Schutzhund world. I would prove to be correct!

   One very sunny day at my mom’s house where I grew up on the beach in California, my children were playing in the backyard. The backyard is like a forest with hills to climb, vegetation to negotiate and multiple critters, including the Black Pacific Rattlesnake. We knew this formidable snake would always appear during the warm summer days, because we would encounter them while running the dogs on the trails in the park below her house. We would see them occasionally on the opposite side of her fence line, which bordered the park below, but never on her side.

One particularly sunny day, the children were playing out back. My mom and I were talking inside the kitchen. During the 30 second period, approximately, Vero was inside the house watching the children, before he decided to join them in their climb up the hill. Mom and I realized that it got a bit too quiet outside, and so we got up to go assess the situation. Vero was climbing the hill pathway. He suddenly ran past my younger son very quickly. This would have been about 10 seconds prior to the main event. When my son reached the tip, he was blocked by Vero. I heard a steady barking, an alert barking, loud and clear. I remember telling my mom that Vero’s bark sounded different, not fearful or defensive but alerting, like calling for back up.

Within the next 10 second interval, we ran up the hill to find Vero in front of my son, his body preventing any further movement. As my eyes traveled the course of Vero’s body from tail towards my son to his head, I saw the largest Pacific Rattlesnake I had ever seen (it had 14 rattles). About 30 seconds later, after Vero’s sighting and alerting, I pulled my son back, while my mom arrived, shovel in hand, and called off Vero. I went down the hill with my son while my mom and Vero followed, with Vero looking back continually (like a protection dog spying the decoy as he is running off the field after the protection exercise). Vero ushered us all down the hill to safety.

   I mentioned to my mom after, that although Vero may not have been a great Schutzhund dog, he had better talents in real time scenarios, saving my son from getting harmed by a very large rattlesnake. Vero was definitely self-aware and altruistic towards an animal of a different species. He gave of himself, a canine to save my son, a human.

Clara Wants to Play

Who says dogs don’t have feelings? Clara, my son’s Border Collie, does not want to be left out of any activity that involves finding someone or playing with a toy. Our SAR exercises involve both activities, and she wanted in this past Sunday during our training session.

Clara had already run her trail and made her find. We put her in the nylon, portable crate and set her behind the truck, since all other crates were occupied with our other SAR dogs, which had also finished their exercises.

During the 30 second interval before the event, my daughter wanted to see if her dog would like SAR work, so we proceeded to give Roxy some sight run trails. I instructed my daughter in the proper procedure, and I enticed Roxy with a toy and noise, focusing her on me. I then hid behind a sage bush, but Roxy could still see me. During the next 10 second period, my daughter said, “Find her,” and began to move out. The event which followed was not only unbelievable but hilarious and revealed self-awareness. Suddenly a large blue crate was rolling down the hill. Clara, not to be left out of the find and the high value reward which followed (playing with the toy) wanted to join in. During the next 10 seconds after the initial movement, Clara continued to roll in her crate, like a hamster in its ball. She was stopped only by a sage bush.

For the next 30 second interval, Clara had to wait, barking excitedly while Roxy got her find and her reward. Clara persisted in moving and barking in the crate, stuck in the sage until her buddy, and our group was finished with the session. Clara was so happy to be let out to join us. She ran around, then downed and waited her turn. Then she got to run after the toy and bring it back as we walked back to the truck.

Clara definitely revealed self-awareness for a member of her canine species, Roxy. However, she showed her desire to be with members of a different species, her human companions as well to join the fun. She did not want to be left out of the training, just like a person does not want to be excluded from an event. Clara exhibited a self-awareness of where she belonged in her pack.

Captain—Dual Purpose Dog

Captain is our 6 year old German Shepherd Dog. He has been SAR 1 certified by two organizations and is an excellent trailing dog. However, Captain was actually brought into the family for a different reason. My son has Aspergers, a high functioning autism spectrum disorder. He is very brilliant, but socially awkward. Captain picked up on my son’s behavioral differences immediately, before the rest of us did. We brought Captain into the family when my son was four years old. Dogs do choose a family member as their charge, and my son became Captain’s.

My son would run out of the house if I were in the back of the house. I would not always know in which direction my son went, but Captain did, and I began to rely on his bark and back and forth running motion. I learned to hear the tone of Captain’s voice and watch the direction of his head and body as an indication of my son’s direction of travel.  I could tell by a certain high pitch Captain gives (almost a distress call or a worried cry) that my son was not where he should be, with a member of his family. When I heard his call, I knew Captain was worried, and I would let him out of the house or yard so he could find my son and herd him home.

One day, I was putting clothes away upstairs. My son was downstairs playing. During the 30 second interval, the house was calm and then I heard the specific high-pitched bark (almost a gurgle to it). Next during 10 second period, I heard Captain racing around the house, moving toward the door. Captain was pacing and barking. I knew and said, “Okay Captain; you go out, find him. Bring him back.”

That is exactly what Captain did. Within the next 10 second interval, Captain stopped his barking and shot out of the house and launched into full search mode. He ran outside, found my son far out in the 5 acre field with no shoes on, just exploring. Once Captain reached my son, during the next 30 second interval, he proceeded to herd him forward with left and right motions, keeping my son in line and moving toward the house.

After herding my son back home, Captain walked past him, only breaking stride to continue the left and right herding motion if my son started to deviate from the forward movement home. Finally Captain calmed down in a relaxed posture, with a normal gait, ears up, and confident, in mission mode.

My son is 9 now and knows to let us all know where he is going. However, Captain is always vigilant and alert if he feels my son is too far away from home and him. Captain’s self-awareness and altruism towards a member of the family who is a bit different is truly amazing. I always will be grateful for the way this canine worries about my son so much that he will make every attempt to keep him safe.

The Chain Reaction

This next account is an observation I recently collected this week from my mom’s point of view. I mentioned earlier that during the spring and summer months, often my family sees the Black Pacific Rattlesnake in the Ventura, California hillside, right in our own backyard!

I received a call from my mom last night to hear her describe an event that includes both inter and intraspecies self-awareness and altruism. My mom is an FNP in Santa Paula, CA 20 miles from her home in Ventura. She normally goes home to check her Schutzhund trained German Shepherds in their kennels. She eats, gives them a break and returns to work. Yesterday, however, my mom could not get home until the evening. Upon arriving, she saw that her backyard gate was open and she was greeted by two of her neighbors.

Apparently, my mom’s shepherds, Brando and Cordon were barking steadily, a deep defensive bark. The one neighbor said they would not stop and this was odd because usually, they are very quiet all day. The neighbor on the other side of her house also heard the barking and a sound like a water hose hissing. His dogs joined in with the same barking. Soon, the neighbor’s dogs from two houses away in the cul d’sac began to bark as well. All the dogs in mom’s particular area were barking in unison. The neighbor said later that the noise was amazing, very loud and odd enough to let the humans know that something was not right.

All the dogs in the neighborhood were alerting their human companions. They came together as if to come to the aid of my mom’s dogs in alerting any humans inside or out to step out and come to the aid of their canine neighbors. The canines succeeded. The one neighbor joined the other and entered my mom’s backyard and found Brando and Cordon defensively barking at a five foot long Black Pacific Rattlesnake. The one neighbor told Brando to go to the other side of the kennel, and he obeyed. Meanwhile, the second neighbor had run home and retrieved a homemade snare. He somehow slipped it over the snake’s head while the other neighbor called the fire department. The rescue came and disposed of the snake.

Dog to dog and human to dog altruism ruled the day! The canines relayed the message of Brando and Cordon’s distress to their human friends who rallied to the aid of their canine neighbors. I only wish I could have witnessed the exact sound of the barks and had been there to hear the message being relayed. What an experience that would have been! However, the entire event does reveal how intraspecies communication can occur between canines and that communiqué can be sent to their human companions in order to help each other when danger occurs.











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