A Theory of the Evolution of Emotion in Dogs and Other Animals

A Theory of the Evolution of Emotion in Dogs and Other Animals

Training and emotion. We can make a little model Organisms that just react… they have nervous tissue, but, no higher function not even the reptilian brain These organisms are truly “reactive” the common example given is when you touch a very hot stove you quickly pull your hand away without any thought at all. So, biologically there is a neurological response of excitement or depression. This is about potential not emotion. so, depression is a degree of losing potential, excitement would be a gain in this potential and then there is the rebound and rest to homeostasis If memory serves.
Humans and dogs have these reactions. reactions are just what they sound like something from the environment, outside of you acts on you and you respond. sometimes these things are called reflexes. The only reflex that may seem complicated is that you need to know that anxiety, fear and depression can lower the tolerance level of all animals making a reflexive action more likely. Depression and Anxiety have been shown to cause real physical pain. So, there is a long list of things that can make a dog just bite you if you touch them in the wrong place or at the wrong time. Reaction is only one of the triggers that may be in play if a dog has issues with aggression. You can not change a true reflex but, you can change and instinct or behavioral pattern.
The reason there is no such thing as a reactive dog is due the fact that the reaction is built into the basic nervous system and does not require any higher brain function. Unless you alter the nerves or deactivate them there is more at work in you and your dogs behavior then reactivity.  The next levels consists of EQ and instinct. Observing EQ and instinct in there primary stages of evolution they do seem to be a simple reflex or reaction. EQ is reduced to a level of arousal and instinct is limited to very basic choices of action.
Instinct is thought to originate in what scientists call the reptilian brain. Reptiles oldest part of the brain as science currently defines the brain. Reptiles do have an instinct. So, I would like to say that if a reptile is experiencing a primary drive.. or instinct that they have the same chemicals involved that we do.. I admit I am not certain. For example, sex drive would be indicated by an increase in testosterone. Humans and dogs have the same mechanisms. so, if we follow our model of the brain through evolution, we find that we all have the same stuff. We do not lose the lower evolutionary adaptation, but nature adds to it. Then there are various adaptations in between that progress through the evolution of the nervous system and theoretically end with us.
A very nice resource for understanding the nervous system. LUMEN so here is what we think currently reaction = lowest form of evolution.. an external stimulus must be present and interact with you for there to be a true reaction. Think sudden loud noise and you flinch. So, dog behavior if you or your dog are injured and you touch it you may be bitten. No, seeing someone or another dog at a distance and going off is NOT reactive, unless they made a loud, sudden noise 🙂 I like to call this neuro-reaction, because really it is your basic nervous system going off. stage two: Instinct = can be divided into two categories. Instincts activated by critical periods like development or mating ( designed to perpetuate the species and promote survival of the individual) higher instinct which I will operationally define as the ability to collect information from the environment via the senses and act according to a group of preset instructions in the brain. This is like a multiple choice quiz you are confined to the answers presented to you.
A good example of instinct is a snake. They collect sensory information from their environment and interact with it according to a strict set of rules. This is not a reaction. A snake can act on its environment, like hunting. The confusion between reactive, instinct and emotional intelligence seems to lie in the misunderstanding of an instinct. So, if you make a loud sound around a snake.. bang on something. Just like us they may react .. say jump. Reflexive actions do tend to set off instinct the most basic of which is fight, flight or freeze, if you have the hardware (higher parts of the brain) for it. But, once this initial reaction resolves they will focus on the situation collecting sensory data and then choose to strike, run or freeze … pretty wild. This all happens in seconds. The difference in a reaction and instinct seems to be that instinct comes with instructions and reactions do not. These instructions are implicit or carried out without any conscious thought, however, the moment you become aware of and begin to think through your actions you have entered the world of higher cognition.

Reaction is a neuro- response once the stimulus is remove and the action potential in the nervous system is spent the situation is over. With instinct it  can be seen as the activation of an intrinsic, implicit cognitive operational environment.  You exist in this state searching for targets that fit the primary drive and your behaviors toward these targets are limited to the choices your nature and nurture have provided. These state of instinct persists until it is resolved or a higher priority drive is activated. People work the same way.  So, just to entertain you. If a dogs protection and self preservation instinct is active is food a higher priority drive ? Is the pain of a correction a higher priority drive?  Don’t you have to be alive, safe, and fed to consider and enjoy sex? The pain from a correct is actually a predictable obstacle to survival and the dog will have activated a higher pain tolerance to boot if they have it in them so, punishment may actual “play into” what they are predicting and this would support the idea that they are in danger not correct it. This is likely why even the most sever punishment does not result in lasting effects that you intended. This “punishment” effect is seriously interesting but, a discussion of another day. No PUNISHING. Trust me. Using an approach that really teaches shows long lasting effects and can create a reaction or add choices to instinct, this maybe a psudo instinct but, if your dog has the phenotype for the task is works.  Also, works in humans.

Here is a fun psychological fact. If you work with a skill enough, it will become like an instinct. You will react in that manner w/o consciousness of thought. This is the state that working dog trainers and competitive dog trainers strive for. Since we, like dogs behave most of the time w/o explicit awareness this reverse or top down process may be an evolutionary adaptation to create instinct that we can theoretically pass on to our offspring. Our higher brain function may allow us to do far more work in our heads and to adapt to situations much faster than other animals, but, when it comes to emotion if you really study them in humans you will learn that they are pretty basic and almost always functioning w/o our cognitive awareness and/or manipulation.
Humans, can create states of anger and fear just by thought. Dogs may or may not have this ability and this may be the defining factor of where their emotional intelligence ends and ours begins. But, they do show signs of all of our emotions based on their interpretation of sensory information. Both dogs and people can change the choices they have with regard to how we interpret and respond to a situation. For example, we can train to behave in a calm confident manner even in a situation that once instilled fear and anxiety, so, can dogs. This observation makes me question where the line is between us and other animals. I am not convinced that it is found in “higher emotions” Emotions are likely not the line of differentiation but, our awareness of the fact that we are acting on instinct and can bring this into our working memory and change our instinctual choices separates us from other animals. A dog can not to the best of my knowledge become aware that they are acting of instinct nor can they develop a plan for correcting the choices they have. We can. This has nothing to do with emotion and everything to do with the highers adaptations of our brain. This is what that stuff  on top of our “dog brain” was designed for.
I find it interesting that even though dogs lack our highest brain function they seem to have the same psychological problems we do. Dogs do have nightmares, sleep walking and are subject to anxiety and depression. These findings support the hypotheses that dogs just like humans can create and emotional state independently of environmental or external stimuli. In my mind this is evidence of higher canine intelligence and emotion. It is entirely possible that our “higher” brain function has nothing to do with emotion and that all animals experience the same range of emotion. You have to ask yourself if we are more evolved than dogs emotionally would dog suffer the same problems that we do? Wouldn’t we have other psychological problems that dogs do not and would we not have emotional abilities that dogs obviously do not have. Yes I have seen models of emotion that include emotions that we have that other animals do not. I love any model that questions the norm, however, I have found it far too easy to define these higher emotions as simply over complicated definitions of basic emotion. I believe that this mistake in defining emotion is the same as the mistakes we make in defining other types of intelligence. I am even dog enough to admit that my theory of canine emotion may simply be yet another over complication or simplification of the subject at hand. What has great support is the idea that we, just like other animals spend the overwhelming majority of our time roaming around unaware of our behavior you could say we all run on instinct. People if we had to think about everything before we did it, you may never get out of the kitchen in the morning. I hate to say this, but in the dog training world right now the argument of if your dog loves you or not is just semantics. The physiology and biochemistry as well as behavioral patterns all support the hypothesis that yep.. they love you. See you next time.




Here is a model of the current thinking regarding dog emotion. Notice that the “higher emotions” are all  based on social norms and social learning they are not true emotions but, cognitive protocol we learn.  The reason you feel prolonged guilt is not that it is a unique emotional state but, because you can really mess with yourself for years due to your higher brain function. Findo does not have this burden. Shame works the in an even more obvious manner. Think of the things that cause what we call shame. They are your interpretation of a situation base on what you have learned not based on naturally occurring biochemical reaction.  Pride is not even close to an emotion it is the best example of stuff you believe and make up in you noodle. These things lead you to experience emotions but, they are the basic “feelings” we and all dog possess. Think about it !

I like this article not for it usefulness regarding the subject but, the fact that it does explain how we come up with crazy extensions to nature in hope that we are something extra special in the universe. I think this is one of our biggest flaws.


What this model labels love and affection is a good example, you know a minute ago people we arguing over whether or not a dog can love you… oooops. Now notice the line goes beyond for we humans.. that is just all the crap, experiences and media we use to define love not the emotion its self.  Tomorrow we will realize that cujo does experience a kind of guilt when he breaks a social norm he just does not create a giant mental mess and moves on with his life. Something to think about folks.

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