Can Dogs Fake Being Depressed?

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Introduction

There's nothing quite like a beseeching pair of puppy-dog eyes for making you do exactly what the dog wants. Those big, brown eyes look so doleful and depressed that you immediately want to make the dog feel better. But down this path lies an overweight dog that's given too many treats. And indeed, when you get out the collar and leash, the dog miraculously cheers up and starts bouncing around. So are they really sad or is it an act?

This raises a good question about if dogs set out to deliberately fool us into thinking they're depressed. After all, when the dog appears down and then nice things happen, surely it's worth them doing a bit of play acting.

The latter is most likely the case. Yes, dogs can fake being depressed, however, what they are doing is enacting behavior which was rewarded in the past. To us, those big, brown eyes look sad, but in fact, the dog isn't depressed but has learned that looking in a certain way gets a treat. You could say we've trained the dog to look depressed, rather than the dog is faking depression. 

Signs of Depression in the Dog

A genuinely depressed dog alters their behavior. Most typically, they don't take part in games they used to enjoy and don't get up to greet you coming home. Indeed, any change from the dog's normal pattern of activities can indicate they are unwell or are depressed. 

If your dog stops eating and refuses walks, never jump to the conclusion that the dog is sad. Instead, it's best to get the dog checked by a vet in case the pet is unwell in any way. Only once the dog has the all-clear on a physical exam can you know if the lack of energy is behavioral or not. 

Depressed dogs tend to have a hunched body posture, often with their head low, giving a typical 'hang dog' appearance. Their tail is often held lower and when it wags, it's usually not with its regular enthusiasm, but instead, a few tentative waves. 

A depressed dog tends to sleep more and not take an interest in life. Be alert for the little things like losing interest in a favorite toy or failing to wolf down a highly-prized treat. 

Body Language

A genuinely depressed dog will shows body language signs such as:
  • Ears drop
  • Low tail carriage
  • Sleepiness

Other Signs

Other signs which can be a clue your dog is feeling depressed include:
  • Slouched body position
  • Poor appetite
  • Head down
  • Lack of energy and unwillingness to play or go for walks

The History of Dog Emotions

One of the many things that make dogs such wonderful companions is the range of emotions they have. Indeed, we often feel such a strong emotional link to our dogs that we look on them as fur-family. However, for many centuries, the way dogs thought and reacted was misunderstood. 

The 'dominance theory' of dog behavior, which was so popular for centuries, has now been disproven. By this theory, dogs were said to be constantly vying to be top dog and in control. Dogs were basically plotting how to get one over on their owner, which meant it was necessary to take a firm hand at all times and make sure the dog understood who was in charge. 

However, the dominance theory is based on flawed observations. We now know that dogs are much more family-orientated, with a strong urge to please. Whilst it's true that they do need firm instruction and guidance, this should be done with the same type of discipline that a caring parent uses to keep their children safe. 

Indeed, it's now understood that a dog feels similar emotions to a 2 1/2-year-old child. They experience excitement, joy, disappointment, and sadness, depending on circumstances. What dogs can't do is be devious about their emotions; they don't deliberately fake an emotion (without having been trained to do so), neither do they experience guilt, pride, or spite. 

The Science of Dogs Faking Emotions

As already mentioned, dogs don't fake emotions so much as learn that a certain action is rewarded. This goes back to the principle of reward-based training. This works on the basis that an action that has a good outcome is liable to be repeated by the dog. 

It is this principle that informed dog owners use to train their pets. From the basics of "sit" and "stay", to more complex tricks, motivating the dog by giving praise or a reward when they do it right is a strong incentive for them to repeat the action when asked again. 

So, if you think your dog is twisting you around their paw by acting sad, be aware that you probably trained them to do this - but without realizing it. 

Training a Dog to Look Depressed

Actually, an owner may accidentally teach their dog to look depressed without even realizing it. This is because they apply the principles of reward-based training to a certain look the dog gives them. Put simply, when the dog wears a certain expression, the owner rewards the dog by cooing over them and giving a reward such as a treat (ostensibly to cheer the dog up) or taking the dog for a walk. 

In the dog's mind, the penny drops that when they arrange their ears and eyes in a certain way, their owner gives them lots of lovely attention and sometimes even a tasty titbit. Therefore, it's highly advantageous to the dog to look that way whenever they fancy attention. And presto! The dog is accidentally trained to look depressed. 

If this is something that you want to do as a party piece, then here's how to set about it. 

Wait until the dog happens to look in a certain way (for example, staring solemnly with puppy-dog eyes). Praise the dog enthusiastically and give them a reward. The dog needs to make the connection between arranging their face a certain way, but once they do this, then you can put the action on command. 

This means that when you see those puppy-dog eyes, you say "Sad dog", praise them and give a reward. When you repeat this enough times, the dog will offer a sad face on cue and you have trained the dog to look depressed. 

How to React to Your Dog Faking Depression

  • Make sure that it is fake! Have your vet confirm this.
  • Ignore the behavior if you want it to stop.
  • Reward the behavior and add a command if you'd like to turn it into a trick.