Humans experience so many emotions. I suspect if one catalogued every word ever uttered to try and describe a feeling from every language that has ever existed, as well as every significant grunt or groan, the result would still be far short of what any single person feels in a lifetime. The full spectrum of a dog’s emotions, on the other hand, would probably fit nicely between the covers of a good children’s book. Despite their relatively narrow emotional capacity and unexpressive faces, I swear I’ve seen dogs that look wistful, avaricious, truculent, and even slightly romantic. Probably most dog lovers are guilty of projecting emotions in this way. It’s irresistibly easy to paint with our vast emotional spectrum on the simple canvas of a furry face. Anyway, the dogs don’t seem to mind. At least, no dog has ever looked especially piqued when I told them they seemed dogmatic.
Today I walked Max the giant Black Lab for the first time, and we were instant friends. I liked him (he could tell), and he liked me (I could tell). He did a little hoppy-wiggly dance to express his joy, and then when I squatted down on my haunches he gave me lots of little uppercuts in the chest with his nose. This performance was emotionally intense, but all fit within the purview of the word “happy.” Max even gave little whimpering cries which almost sounded sad or even elegiac, but no, still just “happy,” albeit perhaps pushing the boundaries of “too happy.” I’ve seen a similar dance from my own Lab, Marty, on many occasions, and to an outsider unfamiliar with dogs, it must look like my walking in the door after a long absence causes the poor creature to experience excruciating seizures. Marty makes a noise like a yelp-howl, falls violently to the floor where she writhes around for a moment, only to hop back up with the urgent need to try and nuzzle/burrow her way into my torso, then she steps back to spin in a few circles and then expands the circles into laps around the living room. Then it’s repeated, from the top. It’s all just Marty’s attempt to define “happy.”
Max wasn’t quite that overcome, but then we’d just met. Max’s parents were home taking care of the sick baby. If you’re a human of the non-sociopath variety, the sight of the final two words of that last sentence probably made you feel something on some level, and might even be enough to make you feel lots of things on a very conscious level if you let them. But not poor Max. There were many primal as well as very subtle emotions floating about the house, and maybe Max could sense that something was going on but couldn’t really sympathize, as much as it is in his sweet nature to try. Like a toddler watching Hamlet, Max probably just wondered why everyone was so tense and worked up, and wished the world would be just plain old happy. A nice brisk walk must have been a welcome relief for Max.
Yet the walk was emotionally intense too. We walked by a house that had a small, very territorial dog fiercely yapping about our impudent proximity to his yard. At least that’s what I heard. Max probably heard “unhappy” and “angry” with every bark, and maybe even “righteously indignant,” though probably not. Max casually strolled over near the fence and this little dog actually tired to bite Max’s nose through the slight crack in the gate. I thought “what gall!” from this little thing half Max’s size, and was eager to forget it and move on. But no, suddenly Max’s ebullience turned to irascibility, and his hackles proclaimed his bellicosity. Max wanted to fight. I’d put a treat in my pocket before I entered Max’s house just in case he needed winning over (ha!), and I decided that I’d give it to him once we got to the corner, and let the milkbone taste of solace eclipse his umbrage. When we got to the corner, I decided that he should probably have to sit first. I said the word and he did it (miraculous! but more on that another time), and then I gave him the treat. Then a pat on the head. Next thing I know Max was laying on his back right in front of me in the middle of the sidewalk. I pet his belly and rubbed his chest, which is a great way to calm Labradors (perhaps because they are so nostalgic for the cosseted days of their puppyhood), but the look on Max’s face was one of the most curious I’ve seen on a dog in a long time.
Maybe the effrontery of the other dog had taken a greater emotional toll than I thought. Maybe the contrast between one pernicious moment and another pleasant, in rapid succession, overloaded Max’s intricate lattice of emotional circuitry, and he became impassive. In any event, as he lay there having his belly rubbed, he looked at me out of the corner of his eye as if he expected something from me, like another treat, a hug, or even a touch of chastisement. He looked like he was mollified by my rubbing his belly, and simultaneously circumspect at the great vulnerability of his position. I kept trying to calm him, stroking his chest and telling him not to mind that little rapscallion back there, but he kept looking at me with one wide nervous eye, his mouth closed tight. It was the face of a creature vexed by many intense emotions. Not a face one would find in a children’s book.
We kept walking, and Max soon slipped back into plain old happy. At least I think he did. Max tended to look like he was smiling, like most Labs and many other breeds. Maybe inside he was lost in an emotional jungle, but outwardly he just wore a big goofy grin. And that, I think, is the dilemma: dogs may look like they’re always smiling, or always sad, and maybe it isn’t true. Maybe it’s good we project so many complicated human feelings on our pets, because they feel much more than their simple pet masks reveal. I don’t know if dogs can feel guilt or boredom or nostalgia or pride, but wagging/not wagging and grinning/not grinning are surely not sufficient markers for how they really feel. I don’t know how many emotions dogs are capable of; maybe it’s 100, maybe it’s only 5 as some have suggested. Maybe they feel things one at a time, or maybe they can feel everything at once, which is what puts my Marty so near insanity every time I see her. You can combine 3 primary colors and make quite a spectrum.
Whatever they feel, they are very interested in how we feel. This, I think, is the greatest evidence that dogs aren’t simply happy/sad playful/angry automatons. They study our faces intensely, trying to puzzle out what we’re feeling, and how they should feel in turn. In fact, studies have shown that dogs automatically look at one side of our asymmetrical faces, probably in an attempt to understand our thoughts and feelings as clearly as possible. The only other species that is known to do this to us, is us. So perhaps when Max was laying on the sidewalk staring at me with that funny expression, it was because I was wearing a pretty funny expression myself, and he was just trying to figure it out. We were chasing each other’s emotional tails. And it’s not a chase either of us is ever likely to win.