But whereas we can understand dogs having emotions such as happiness or sadness, what about a more complex emotion such as pride?
If your dog performs a complicated trick for the first time or does a particularly good round at agility, can they feel proud?
Experts tell us the answer is "No". Pride is a human emotion and even we are not born able to feel pride. This ability develops as we grow and age, and occurs at around 3 years in a child's development. Since dogs have the emotional repertoire of a two-and-a-half year old (or younger child), this means they don't learn to feel pride.
Book First Walk Free!
Signs of a Dog Looking Proud
For example, if the dog holds their head high, nose in the air, this could be misinterpreted as pride because it is the stereotypical way a person might look proud. However, in this case the dog is a scenthound breed and has their nose in the air in order to catch an interesting smell.
Another example is the dog that stacks or stands with all four legs straight and well separated, with their tail in the air. This confident body posture is encouraged in the show ring, precisely because it shows the dog off to best advantage and makes them look proud of their appearance. After all, if the dog isn't impressed by their own physique, then why should the judge be?
However, stacking is a stance which breeders teach their purebred dogs from a young age, in order to make the best impression in the show ring. It has little to do with the dog's internal emotions and everything to do with creating a false impression for the benefit of human observers.
- Head tilting
- Jumping up
- Wag tail
- Slow blinking
- Having their nose tipped upward
- Holding their head high
A History of Understanding Canine Emotions
This is a case of familiarity breeding contempt. For countless centuries, mankind has made assumptions based on our closeness to dogs. We have read into their body language and expressions, what we wanted to see. And when we did look for explanations, we reached the wrong ones.
The classic example is understanding what motivates dogs and how their society is structured. So-called 'dominance theory' came about because of flawed observations of wolves in a zoo. Observers saw how the wolves fought each other for resources and were constantly battling to became top-wolf. From this, they concluded that dogs are like wolves and are constantly striving to better their human master. Therefore dogs need a dominant, firm master in order to keep them in place.
What those original onlookers didn't take into account was that those wolves in the zoo were unrelated, didn't know one another, and were under huge pressure for food and territory. Therefore, they were bound to fight. In actuality, wild wolves organize themselves into family groups and co-operate with each other.
The Science of Canine Emotions
A dog's emotions also coincide to those of a two to two-and-a-half-year-old child. This is significant because it's after the age of three that humans develop more complex emotions such as pride, spite, jealousy, and guilt. Our dogs stop short of this milestone and are, therefore, not likely to feel these emotions.
Training a Dog to Show Pride
To teach this stance to a puppy, play with them a little ahead of the lesson. This helps to burn off excess energy which might stop the dog from concentrating. There are many ways to teach stacking. Some involve standing the dog's paws on four objects, such as books, that raise them slightly off the ground. Then, by placing the books where you want the dog's paws to be, you can arrange their stance. When the dog stands in a way that pleases you, give a cue command such as "Stack" and praise the dog.
Alternatively, you can entice the dog into a stacked position using a treat lure. Find a tasty titbit that the dog really likes. With the dog in a standing position, move your hand slightly away from the dog's nose in a horizontal direction, so the dog stretches their neck to follow it. Adjust the position of your hand to achieve the desired body shape. If necessary, use your free hand to place each paw in exactly the right spot so that the dog stacks.
Again, praise and reward the dog. Label the action with a cue word so you can put the desired action on command.
How to React to Your Dog Looking Proud:
Realize that, likely, something else is going on in their head.
Watch to see if they have smelled something or are alert for a different reason.
Reward their prideful stance if you'd like them to do it on cue.