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Local animal welfare groups and Herald staff |
Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012, 10:01 a.m.

Dogs have emotions and ethics, too

  • When not chasing each other, buddies Grover and Sam like to sleep right next to one another.

    Lynnie Ford

    When not chasing each other, buddies Grover and Sam like to sleep right next to one another.

Have you ever gotten one of those “I can't believe it” looks from your “dogless” friends when:

1. You leave for the evening and tell your dog, “Don't worry, I'll be back soon. Guard the house and here's a bone to chew on while I'm gone. I'll bring you back some goodies.” (What did she just say to her dog?)


2. You pack your dog's belongings for a stay at the kennel -- a clean bed, new toys, special food, two-page list of directions for the caretaker --and then must call daily to make sure they're doing fine.


3. You apologize profusely to your dog when:

a. Breakfast and/or dinner is late. Their appetite alarms went off at the correct time but apparently yours didn't.

b. Due to an impossible schedule, you didn't have time to take them on their daily walk and now it's pouty dog faces all around.

c. You've gathered the dogs for a fun time at the park, only to find when you arrive you not only forgot a ball, but you left the beloved Chuck-It at home.

d. All of the above.

4. You come home from work, greet the dogs with kisses, hugs, etc. and then remember you also have two-legged children.

Then I'm here to tell you, you're not crazy ... Your friends are. Dogs deserve all that attention and more. Before talking about the magic of massage -- (to which I often hear, “Massage for dogs? Now that's weird…”) -- according to Marc Bekoff, an animal behaviorist, dogs have empathy and compassion. Therefore, they not only deserve massage for their physical well-being, but also for their emotional well-being as well. (I said that, not Bekoff, though I'm sure he would be in complete agreement with me.)

Researcher Bekoff, whose main areas of research include behavior and cognitive ethology (the study of animal minds), and behavioral ecology, has noted a long list of observable emotions and ethical behavior that most dog lovers have already observed and many that we could emulate. They include:

1. Dogs have a sense of fair play. They dislike cheaters. They experience joy in play. They delight in friends.

Some of my favorite moments are watching my four dogs run free at the local park. It's as though they are running through large, wide-open meadows, sniffing for stinky things to roll on, watching for birds to chase -- without a care in the world. It's pure joy to watch -- simple enjoyment of life, each other, and, if only for a few minutes, freedom to be wild. Their joy is contagious, invigorating and so, so simple.

2. Dogs get jealous when a rival gets more or better treats or treatment. (That's totally understandable.) They are resentful, unnerved or saddened by unfair behavior. They are made anxious by suspense. They get afraid.

Iris is a terrier mix we adopted 3 years ago. She was born fearful, and disguises this by showing her beautiful white teeth to anyone and anything that scares her or makes her anxious -- thus the nickname “Cujo.” She teaches me so much -- if someone takes one of the new toys, grab it, and take it under the sideboard, in fact take all of them. They're all mine. The puppy wants to play -- let's play -- but he better figure out when I'm done because if he doesn't, I'm going to show him those pearly whites and growl. She's a trip -- but my trip. She, who has never been mistreated a day in her life, is anxious, jealous and fearful. But she knows she is loved and her little circle of friends expands every day. She is a love bug -- just anxious and afraid to open herself up all the way, all the time. We're all anxious at times -- we, too, just need someone to be patient and love us. We're afraid, jealous and sad -- just don't give up on us.

3. Dogs are embarrassed when they mess up or do something clumsy. They feel remorse when they do something wrong.

Mr. Murphy, our large 15-year-old dog, died in December. As he got older, he occasionally did the old dog -- all 4 legs go different directions -- fall. Not sure he was necessarily embarrassed, but he was anxious to get up -- quick -- before the other youngsters saw him. So, he would immediately bark, bark -- “Get over here, someone needs help over here.” I loved that boy. He would go to the park and eagerly attempt to run across the field to greet another dog. He wanted to be part of the pack -- and despite his age, he never gave in to being clumsy or too old. He might have been embarrassed at times, but he carried on. I miss him.

4. Dogs have affection and compassion for their animal and human friends and family. They defend their loved ones. They grieve their losses. They have hope.

Biggest lesson of all -- dogs love us no matter what. It's what makes a bad day end well. A trip to the mailbox is an opportunity to let you know how much they missed you in those 3 minutes. I love that they have hope -- they hope to be with you forever, they believe in you and they hope this day, and the one after that, and the one after that will be a good one.

I know there are many people who say, “They're just a dog.” But if you have ever shared a life with a dog, you know they are more than that. And I'm telling you, they deserve the best ... which, of course, includes an all-systems-building, arthritis-soothing, cucumber-on-the-eyes massage.

A summary of Bekoff's research on animal emotions was published in 2007: "The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy and Why They Matter."

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