Who can resist the power of puppy dog eyes? Staring into a pair of big, brown eyes is sure to tug at your heartstrings. It might be your resolve turns to mush and, against your will, you reach for that extra treat or titbit that you swore not to give to the dog.
Indeed, you wouldn't be the first owner to wonder if their dog isn't manipulating them in order to get what they want. Of course, we all know the answer, which is that dogs are experts at winding their owners around the proverbial paw.
But how deep does the deception go?
Do dogs go so far as to fake feeling sad, and if so, do they do it deliberately? Let's find out.
Signs of a Dog Feeling Sad
What does a sad dog look like?
Dogs can and do experience genuine sadness. This often shows itself as the dog not doing things that they previously enjoyed doing. For example, the dog that enjoys going for walks may become reluctant to go out. They may lose interest in food or fail to get up to great an owner when they return home.
A typical scenario where a dog might be sad is after the loss of a close companion. A grieving dog may act dejected, sleep more than is usual, and not accept titbits which they previously gobbled up.
How a dog shows sadness also varies between individuals. Some dogs that are in a depressed mood become withdrawn and want to be by themselves. Whereas others become extra clingy to their owner and feel the need to be constantly in their presence.
It can also occur that some dogs shun company and even become aggressive if company is forced upon them.
A History of Dog Emotions
It is a strange fact that dogs, our closest companions, have been misunderstood for centuries. For too long, the dominance theory of dog behavior was held to be correct. However, we now know it to be wrong.
In theory, it was held that dogs were motivated by trying to get to the top or alpha position. This meant an owner had to be constantly vigilant that their dog wasn't being given privileges that inadvertently elevated their place in the pack.
But this is wrong.
Instead, dogs are more like children. It's more appropriate to think of their behavioral range as similar to a young child. Indeed, it's now recognized that dogs develop the emotional range of a 2 1/2-year-old. They experience simply 'primary' emotions, such as joy, happiness, contentment, fear, anxiety, and sadness.
However, a dogs emotions stall at this point, which is good because they don't develop more complex (or divisive ) emotions such as pride, spite, or guilt.
All of which means that dogs are honest about their emotions and don't pretend to be things they aren't.
However, this doesn't mean a dog can't fake being sad. What happens is that our reactions to certain actions can accidentally train the dog to act in a certain way. Thus, when a dog learns that staring with big eyes is rewarded by a treat, they are apt to repeat this.
The Science of a Dog Faking Sadness
What we take for a dog pretending to be sad, in order to gain attention or a treat, is actually reward-based training in action.
Dogs learn by associating an action with an outcome. This is the basis of reward based training. We make use of this to teach dogs to "Sit", "Stay" or any number of other useful commands. In short, when the dog performs an action and that action is rewarded, the dog will repeat that behavior in order to gain another reward.
When a dog stares at us with puppy-dog eyes swimming with sadness, we are interpreting those large eyes as being sad. When we reward that stare with attention or a tasty treat, the dog learns this is a super-easy way to get a much-coveted reward...and therefore, it becomes a learned behavior.
Training a Dog to Fake Sadness
As you will see, it's not that hard to teach a dog to act sad. All you need do is identify an action that makes the dog look sad. Then, reward the dog when they present you with that action. Once the dog starts spontaneously acting the way you desire in order to get a treat, then add in a cue word.
Let's say the dog burying their nose between their paws makes them look sad. To train them to do this, you first need to get the dog to put a paw to the nose. Simply put some peanut butter or another tasty substance on the dog's paw. When they raise the paw to their face, praise them and give a treat.
Quickly, the dog learns that raising a paw gets lots of lovely attention. They may then start spontaneously raising a paw to see what happens. Be watchful for this and be sure to leap in with lots of praise.
Now is a good time to add in a cue word. A word such as "Sad" is the cue by which the dog recognizes the action you want them to offer. Simply say "Sad" as the dog starts to lift the paw, and then reward them when the paw touches their nose.
With enough practice, saying "Sad" will trigger the dog to raise a paw and cover their nose.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 06/27/2018, edited: 04/06/2020