The feeling of freedom is very important. To be liberated is to be truly alive. It’s an aspect of the human experience that we all cherish and seek to protect. But what of our canine friends; can they experience freedom as we do? Can they tell the difference between restriction and liberty, and does it even mean anything to them?
Such a nuanced experience may not be within the remit of canine emotional capacity, but there are parts of freedom that a dog can certainly enjoy. The may relish the liberation of being in a wide open space, or simply appreciate being released from a temporary stay in a crate.
Research into canine emotion is ongoing, and in time we may have better understanding of how dogs think and feel. Until then, let’s take a look at the ways our furry friends experience freedom!
Signs That Dogs Feel Freedom
Your dog may interpret freedom as a feeling of happiness after being cooped up in the house all day, or within a crate whilst traveling. They will demonstrate signs of contentment, in accordance with their usual behavior in response to positive experience.
Once the door to the house, room, or crate has been opened, they are likely to spring out into their newly free surroundings. They may run and jump around, and show their satisfaction with barking. This is highly likely to be accompanied by tail wagging and raised ears.
Watch out for signs of over-excitement, such as excessive panting. Whilst you want your fluffy friend to have a good time with their newfound freedom, it’s important to ensure they don’t become overexerted. If your dog needs a timeout, take them to a cool, shaded area and give them some water. Encourage them to sit or lay down to help manage their excitement.
Sadly, there are some instances in which a dog does not enjoy the feeling of freedom; instead, they prefer the security of being in a crate or staying within the parameters of the home. This could be due to a previous traumatic experience, separation anxiety, or clinginess due to stress, illness, or old age.
In these circumstances, your dog may display behaviours associated with agitation or fear. These can include any combination of whining, crying, howling, pacing, shaking, or cowering. Their ears tend to be down, and they might be reluctant to leave your side.
History of Dogs Feeling Freedom
There haven’t yet been studies into the specific feeling of freedom within the canine emotional profile. However, there has been research into the feelings that come into play when we think of freedom.
Let’s take the scenarios discussed above. If a dog equates freedom with happiness, we have some understanding of how that process works. Scientists have discovered that canine behavior is influenced by psychological triggers like those seen in humans. When dogs recognize that freedom is a good thing (which can be reinforced by the encouragement of their owners), their brain will make connections to bring about a positive response.
Conversely, if a dog perceives freedom as a reason to be fearful, there’s another mechanism at play. Just as humans have a ‘flight or fight’ response to challenging situations, canines will behave in such a way that protects their survival. That could be as simple as sticking by their human. For the dog, a wide open space may be too overstimulating or unfamiliar; by clinging to their owner, they are focusing on the aspect of the situation that makes them feel safe.
This kind of agoraphobia has been reported by countless owners. Usually it comes about as a response to a traumatic event, such as an incident involving a car, a negative interaction with another dog, or a previous abandonment. Fortunately, many dogs can overcome this reaction with training, and others can live perfectly happy lives within their familiar spaces.
Science of Dogs Feeling Freedom
Research has shown that the canine neurological pathway is similar to that of humans. Neurotransmitters and hormones do the bulk of the legwork, sending signals to the brain, which interprets the information and decides upon an emotional and physical response. The behavior displayed by a dog can give us a good indication of whether they’re feeling happy, relaxed, sad, or frightened.
The distinction between human and canine psychology, according to current understanding, is the process by which emotions are processed. In humans, this is deeply complex, and guided by our evolved analytical skills. In dogs, it’s far less complicated. Still, an imbalance of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin can skew behaviour, causing unexpected reactions to familiar situations.
Training Dogs to Feel Freedom
As mentioned throughout this article, it’s unlikely that dogs will be able to isolate the nuanced feeling of freedom. However, there are techniques that can help dogs to rewire their thought process to enjoy the freedom of a new or open space if it is something that currently frightens them.
There are two key aspects to this approach; gradual exposure and positive reinforcement. The first, gradual exposure, is exactly the same technique that is used in human psychology to help patients overcome phobias and generalized anxiety. As the name suggests, you will gradually introduce your dog to the situation that causes them distress, initially in short bursts, and progressively, build up their resilience.
Take the example of a dog being afraid of wide, open spaces. The procedure, in this case, would be to visit the space in short bursts of only a couple of minutes at a time, before returning your dog to a space that is familiar and safe for them. If they show signs of distress, do not encourage the behavior by providing attention. Gently but firmly remove them from the situation, and give praise when they are calmer.
If your dog behaves well in their challenging situation, reward the behavior. Provide a treat or give them extra attention. Your dog will learn what kind of behavior leads to a positive outcome for them. Also, by restricting attention when they act up, it helps them to understand that what they initially perceived as a threat isn’t scary at all. If their human isn’t worried, they have no reason to be either. Repeat these techniques to help your dog become happy and confident in open spaces.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 06/21/2018, edited: 04/06/2020