Interview with Melinda Schiller on Your Dog's Emotions
Dogs seem to show a wide variety of emotions.
But do we know what they are and how to handle them as well as we think they do? Melinda Schiller, a CPDT-KA certified dog trainer and the owner of Elite Pet University in Fayetteville, AR, spoke with us about understanding our dog’s emotions. Melinda has a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University, has run her professional dog training business for four years, and uses exclusively force-free methods in her training.
The Honest Kitchen: Hi, Melinda! So tell us: do our dogs have emotions? If so, what emotions do they have? How do they express them?
Melinda Schiller: Yes, dogs do have emotions. However, they don’t have the same repertoire of emotions that humans do. They have the same most basic emotions as humans, like joy, fear, anger, disgust. The emotions they don’t have are the more complex emotions that humans express, like spite, guilt, or jealousy (although, if you want to start a fight among dog trainers, ask them whether or not dogs can feel jealous!). We like to put our human emotions onto dogs and assume that they have the same emotional capability that we have, but this actually isn’t the case.
Obviously, dogs express their emotions through body language. If a dog turns its head away from another dog, it means hey, I’m not cool with you, go away. A dog lifting up its paw means that it’s uncomfortable or unsure how to act. Big displays of emotions like barking, lunging, growling, biting—all the scary stuff—that’s when people call the dog trainer.
THK: We often have personality stereotypes that we associate with different dog breeds—do certain dog breeds tend to express certain emotions more than others?
MS: It’s possible. Certain characteristics that are brought out more in certain breeds. For example, my dogs are herding dogs, so their herding instinct can become overaroused, and when that happens they become nippy, lunge on leash, and are reactive to movement, because that’s what has been bred into them for years. A lot of herding dogs are Type A control freaks, because they’ve been bred to control a herd and keep them safe. These types of dogs can display a lot of reactivity and fear toward strangers.
Some dogs with a reputation for aggression, like Dobermans, suffer from problems related to their physiology. The cropped ears and cut off tail that we associate with Dobermans mean that these dogs are deprived of the two most natural means dogs have for expressing emotions and telling us that they are uncomfortable. Unlike some other countries, America still allows cropping of dogs’ body parts, which means that these dogs aren’t always overreacting, they’re just reacting normally to overstimulation. We just can’t always tell when they are showing lower-level signs of discomfort.
THK: How do our dogs’ emotions affect their behavior?
MS: Honestly, it’s the same as any species! If you take a kid somewhere and they are scared or uncomfortable, they may throw a tantrum, move to the side, not make eye contact, or even hide behind mom and dad.
Dogs use what are called “calming signals” to try to defuse tense situations. Examples of calming signals are curving around other dogs, turning their heads to the side, turning their ears, or not making eye contact. These behaviors show that they’re trying to make themselves less uncomfortable. If a dog lifts a foot up, it means I’m unsure what I should be doing. An itch that comes out of nowhere is displacement behavior, saying I’m going to do this physical motion because I’m uncomfortable—not unlike a human picking at their nails or jogging their leg. Dogs have a whole spectrum of tell-tale behaviors before barking, growling, lunging, or a lip curl happen. When people are oblivious to early signs of discomfort in dogs, bites and nips happen because things have escalated.
The same is true with positive emotions like joy—this comes out in the wiggle butt! A dog shows they are happy by bouncy, wiggly, loose body movements. There’s so much more to a dog’s happiness than just a wagging tail. The more exaggerated the movement, the more emotion is involved.
But a wagging tail doesn’t necessarily mean a happy dog. If a dog’s whole rear is moving, then they’re excited. If their tail is wagging in a windmill or full circle, they’re happy. However, if a dog’s tail is straight over their back and moving back and forth, this is called “flagging.” They’re probably also staring at something, leaning forward, saying back off. If their tail is tucked under their belly, moving slow or fast, often accompanied in puppies by droopy ears, lip licking, and urinating, they’re saying I’m a little uncomfortable with what’s happening. You can actually get bit by a dog with a wagging tail!
THK: When our dog is expressing negative emotions through unwanted behavior, how should we respond?
MS: If you’re unsure, throw food! Don’t reprimand the dog or tell them to stop. People punish the most when others are around because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. Just because your dog is embarrassing you doesn’t mean you should punish them. Just reassure them, speak positively, call them over to check in with you, and give a treat. It’s called counterconditioning: they learn that something scary to them can actually result in something good instead. If they’re encountering a big emotion, use a big, stinky high-value treat! If someone coming in the house means your dog barks, use a treat they especially love when people come in so that they start to associate people coming in with getting their favorite thing.
If food isn’t your dog’s thing, try their favorite toys or lots of praise and attention. As long as you are calm and loving in the stressful situation, it should help. Your embarrassment doesn’t help though: when you get worked up, your dog just reads, you’re anxious and upset because that person who is upsetting me is here.
You should always try to set your dog up to be successful. Again, if your dog reacts to people coming in, have your dog in a different room and just let them hear the door open. That way they can be prepared for a new person, and you can be calm and prepared to train. Dog trainers use the concept of “thresholds”: you want to help your dog so that they never reach the threshold of fear that makes them act out.
Overcoming these kinds of behaviors can take anywhere from five minutes to weeks to fix. The dogs with lots of punishment in their past or a bad bite history can take a really long time to fix.
NEVER use shock or prong collars with dogs displaying these behaviors. When you use these forceful methods, you’re not making what is frightening your dog any less scary, but you’re telling them that they can’t display their fear signals anymore. You’re teaching them to react, not to communicate. Eventually, they will skip the lunge and go straight for the bite.
THK: Many of us have adopted dogs from rescue situations, and our dogs sometimes have wild emotional responses to strange triggers due to past abuse. Can you give advice on handling negative emotions in abused dogs?
MS: Take training very slow. Be patient. Give them more time to let them investigate the trigger for their fear. As long as they’re interacting with the scary thing, praise them, give them treats, reward them for facing their fear. Let the dog be brave on their own terms. Even if it takes 20 min for your dog to sniff the weird box that is freaking them out, that’s okay. I can’t swim: if you just threw me in the lake, I would have a heart attack and drown. But if you let me dip my toe in, sit by the lake, and learn that a shark won’t jump out and eat me, then I’ll eventually warm up and be able to get in the water (with 10 life jackets). Dogs work exactly the same. Go at their pace, let them work through it, hold their hand (paw), and be their cheerleader.
I rarely work with a dog I would truly deem “aggressive”—most of the time, these dogs are just scared. Negative behaviors will naturally taper off when they learn that they are safe and nothing bad is going to happen. They should know that you are their cheerleader and that you will never let anything bad happen to them.
However, if you have a truly aggressive dog and want to work with dog trainer or behaviorist for help, find a trainer that is qualified. The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers has a list of trainers who have earned the titles of Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) or Certified Behavior-Canine Consultant (CBCC). Anyone off the street can call themselves a dog trainer and try to take on complex behavior issues they aren’t prepared for, so do your homework! Big box pet supply stores also aren’t prepared to handle these cases. Veterinarians may be helpful, but a behaviorist is what you want: the difference between a veterinarian and a behaviorist is comparable to that between a doctor and a psychiatrist. You can also check the Pet Professional Guild—members of this organization do not use force, pain, or intimidation in any respect to working with owners and their dogs. Finally, there is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC). This organization is very thorough in vetting people, and they list behavior consultants broken up by species—they can work with cats, birds, and horses as well as dogs.
Emalie Cockrell is a writer and dog mom living in northwest Arkansas. She holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas. She and her husband, Connor, take their rescue pup Karhu out on the trails for camping, hiking, backpacking, running, and rock climbing any chance they get.