Most of the time, our canine friends are happy, little souls, bringing joy to our everyday lives. However, there are occasions on which dogs can seem more subdued or upset than usual. They may be lethargic, disinterested in favorite toys, or unduly clingy. These behaviors might suggest that a dog is feeling miserable.
But do dogs have the ability to experience the specific feeling of misery? Although research is ongoing, there is evidence to suggest that dogs can pinpoint this emotion. In this article, we’ll take a look at the signs that something is wrong, the history and science behind this phenomenon, and ways you can help train your dog in the art of resilience.
Signs of Dogs Feeling Misery
Misery is a particularly unpleasant emotion. There are infinite possible triggers, but we’ll explore three of the most common.
Dogs are likely to feel miserable if they are unwell or injured. They may display signs of distress, such as whining, shaking, and cowering. Their ears will be dropped, and they may howl if the area causing pain is touched. Of course, if you suspect your dog is injured or otherwise unwell, it’s best to have them checked out at the vet.
Dogs may also feel miserable in response to a separation. This could be due to their owner being away from home for work on a vacation, or temporarily absent for a bathroom break or phone call in a home office. Dogs can also be uncannily perceptive in the case of a bereavement.
In these instances, the pup may become noticeably more alert, pacing back and forth in the same spot, and there will likely be vocal involvement, progressing from a gentle whine or growl to crying, howling, and eventually barking. They might try to sniff out their owner’s location, or scratch at a door that was recently closed. A dog will also usually stare intently at the last place they saw their human.
The third instance in which dogs commonly display misery is in response to boredom. Most of our canine buddies require a consistent level of stimulation throughout the day. This needn’t be elaborate; if, for example, the house is empty most of the day due to work or school, you can prevent your dog from being bored by placing favorite toys throughout the house. A daily visit from a dog walker can also help to break up their day.
There are tell-tale signs that your dog in under-stimulated. You may return home to find that your little angel has been chewing the couch, chairs, tables, toilet paper, or a stack of important documents. Usually, this behavior stems from boredom. If you are around, your dog will display its dissatisfaction by trying to grab your attention by any means necessary.
This might involve vocal indications, such as howling, growling, and barking, as well as nudging, jumping up, and trying to sit on your lap; depending on the size of your pet, this can be very effective! Your dog may also pace around the space they are occupying, looking for something to do.
History of Dogs Feeling Misery
Humans and dogs have always had a natural affinity; they’re man’s best friend for good reason! As such, we never want to see our furry friends in distress, and the question of negative emotions in dogs has been the subject of scientific research.
It is thought that dogs do have the capacity to experience misery as a specific emotion. As we discovered above, there can be specific triggers that bring these feeling about, or a dog may sense a general sadness within the household, and adjust its behavior accordingly.
There have been countless anecdotal reports of dogs experiencing misery. One of the most heartbreaking scenarios is that of bereavement. It’s astonishing to find out just how attuned dogs seem to be when they realize that one of their beloved humans has passed away.
Their behaviour might simply be an internalised response to the person being absent from the home, or it may be a reaction to the sadness of the bereaved. A small study at Goldsmiths University in London demonstrated that over three-quarters of dogs respond to human distress, even when the person is previously unknown to the dog. Empathetic behaviour is nothing new to dog owners, but for the phenomenon to be explored and proven scientifically does provide a worthy springboard for further research.
Science of Dogs Feeling Misery
It may surprise you to find out that dogs have similar emotional wiring to humans. Although we have the benefit of greater analytical skills, which allows us to understand the complexity of our emotions, dogs make sense of the world using a comparable process.
Neurotransmitters are in charge of carrying chemical signals between the rest of the body. Whenever a dog uses its senses, the information gathered by the organs involved is transported straight to the brain for analysis. The dog will then give a behavioural response based on the brain’s interpretation of whatever situation they have encountered. If a dog feels miserable, they will display a negative response as outlined above.
Training Dogs Who are Feeling Misery
Of course, no good owner wants their dog to ever feel miserable. However, circumstances beyond our control can cause distress to our canine best friends. That’s why setting aside time for training a dog to be more emotionally resilient is so worthwhile. This approach provides them with the skills to react more constructively to situations that would otherwise cause prolonged misery.
As we discovered above, misery as a result of boredom can be avoided by providing plenty of stimuli to keep your dog entertained during time spent alone. However, the response is unavoidable if a pup suffers an illness or injury.
In these circumstances, you may wish to smother your dog with extra love. We understand that it’s tempting, but do try to avoid this response, as it reinforces whining and attention-seeking behavior. Instead, reinforce good behavior with treats, toys, and cuddles.
For example, if your dog is howling for attention after a recent procedure at the vets, the behavior is probably born of a need for comfort, rather than pain. As long as you’re satisfied that your dog is healing well, don’t give into their demands. Instead, completely ignore the howling (or any other unwanted behaviour) and respond positively when your dog is calm. Over time, they will realise that only certain behaviours elicit the desirable attention, whilst others will be entirely ignored. Through positive reinforcement, your dog will learn that misery doesn’t always love company!
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 06/22/2018, edited: 04/06/2020