Imagine you've been teaching your dog a complex trick, such as putting their toys away in a box. This involved breaking the trick down into baby steps and teaching these one at a time. So, the dog had to learn how to fetch a toy, give it up, and then place it in the appropriate box. Then, the dog has to repeat this chain of events until the floor is clear of toys.
When, at long last, the dog masters the trick, their tail wags and their body language could be interpreted as being proud of their achievement. You're certainly proud of what they've done, so why shouldn't the dog be?
Actually, dogs don't feel pride. This emotion isn't in their psychological make-up. What's more likely is we are interpreting the dog's excitement, or happiness at completing the task, as pride. In other words, we are anthropomorphizing the dog's actions.
Signs That Look Like Pride in a Dog
A dog that looks proud is going to be an upbeat fellow, probably with a wagging tail as an outer signal that they are pleased with themselves. In addition, they will seem excited, and perhaps even woof or bark to show their inner jubilation.
The dog may pick something up in their mouth and then drop it, as a means of gaining attention, and to show off what they can do. Also, some dogs may repeat the behavior we think they are 'proud' of as if to demonstrate how clever they are.
But be aware, this is not the dog feeling proud, but acting excited or even repeating behaviors which made us go "Oh" and "Ah...look how clever the dog is." We are rewarding the dog with attention, so they're more likely to repeat a behavior and be pleased as a result.
- Head tilting
- Wag tail
- Holding their head high
- Standing tall
A History of Understanding Dog Emotions
The French philosopher Rene Descartes held that dogs were merely reacting to their environment, rather than feeling emotions. As an example, if someone kicked a dog and the dog yelped, this was a result of their mechanical reaction (in a machine-like way) to the act of being kicked, rather than a response to pain.
Whilst this may seem peculiar and flawed reasoning to us in the modern day, it made sense back then. This was because of the wide influence of the Catholic Church, which held that only humans had souls. To acknowledge that dogs had feelings and emotions would have elevated their status, and opened a debate about sentience that the church was not willing to have.
Modern studies clearly show what is obvious - that dogs do have emotions. Indeed, they go through a process of psychological development similar to a 2 1/2-year-old-child, which stops short of more complex feelings such as guilt and pride.
The Science of Dogs Feeling Emotions
This is significant because we know different emotions develop at certain milestones. The most basic of emotions present soon after birth and include excitement and distress. Hot on their heels comes contentment and disgust, followed by anger, fear, joy, suspicion, shyness, affection, and love.
What's really interesting is that there's then a gap when more subjective emotions develop. At this point, the dog's development stops, whereas a child continues to develop more judgmental emotions such as pride, jealousy, contempt, and guilt. Hence, dogs don't feel pride and are therefore unable to fake pride, as such. But we can train a dog to display signs we associate with pride.
Training a Dog to Fake Pride
To do this, use reward-based training methods. This involves giving the dog a treat when they show the action required of them. This treat can be a food titbit, praise, or a game, just so long as it's something the dog values and wants to earn as a reward.
Start by using a treat as a lure. Hold it in your hand so that the dog gets a scent of the treat. Lure the dog into position with their head held high. When the dog is in the correct position, say "Yes" in an excited tone of voice and give the reward. Repeat this several times across several different training sessions.
Pretty soon, the dog will anticipate what's wanted when your hand moves to a certain position. When you see this, add a cue word such as "Stand proud". If necessary, lure the dog to complete the maneuver, then praise and reward.
With practice, the dog will respond to the verbal cue and you can drop the lure.