Mood transference: Does my dog know how I feel?
Sharing of moods is a phenomenon that many dog owners underestimate, and one that is hardly taken into account at all in conventional training and raising of dogs. It does, however, have a large impact on our day-to-day coexistence with our dogs, and it also plays a big role in training.
Do you sometimes find that you have trouble focusing on training with your dog after a stressful day at work? Your boss might have annoyed you once again, and you had a bad day with your computer, but you don’t want to miss out on training at obedience school yet again, so you force yourself to go. After all, you want to be a good dog owner. After you get there, of course, nothing seems to go right. Whatever you say seems to go in one ear and out the other, and your dog doesn’t seem to be in a very good mood today, either. Your frustration builds. And then, to make matters worse, here comes that one dog that just doesn’t get along with your own furry friend – the one whose owner isn’t exactly your favorite at the dog park, either. From then on, your dog doesn’t want to have anything to do with training. You can barely keep control at all. You tear your hair out, asking yourself why you came at all.
Sound familiar? You might have noticed that the fact that your mood rubs off on your dog has been like a common theme running through each scene. Like dominoes falling, each experience pulls you further into a bad mood – and your dog with you.
“My dog knows exactly what he did wrong!”
Your dog might have broken a vase at some point, or mixed up your shoes and his chew toy. If so, you will definitely know his guilty look. You come home, see what he has done, and think, “He knows exactly what he did wrong!”
But that’s just what our dogs don’t know at this later point in time, even if that guilty expression might say the opposite. In fact, what is happening is that our mood is transferring to the dog, and he is reflecting our behavior. According to a study by Alexandra Horowitz, a canine cognition researcher, this behavior has nothing to do with a sense of guilt. In her studies, the “guilty look” turned out to be a response to the owner’s actual behavior:
“If we told the dog owners that their dog had stolen something while they were out, even if it wasn’t true, the dog still reacted with that ‘hangdog look.’ The opposite was also true. When we told owners that their dog had been good, but he had actually swiped a ‘forbidden treat,’ the dog did not exhibit any ‘guilty’ behavior.”
As you can see, our thoughts and beliefs have a large influence on our actions, and as a result, ultimately also on our moods and feelings. Of course, it isn’t enough to just wish that your dog would finally be calmer when walking on a leash or show another type of behavior you’d like to see in everyday life. But if you have a positive goal in mind, you can deliberately gear your actions toward that goal, which in turn leads to more successful training, and thus to a better overall mood.
The reasons for mood transference
Dogs share moods by nature. When one dog’s motivation transfers to another, so both of them respond in the same way at the same time and their behavior is synchronized, we describe it as mood transference.
Researchers have discovered that dogs have what are known as “mirror” neurons. These mirroring cells allow dogs to adopt the feelings and actions of others merely by observing them. The neurons are located in areas of the brain that are responsible for movement, touch and feelings. These special nerve cells fire when a dog observes another dog doing something. These nerve cells then show the exact same pattern of activity that is otherwise seen when an action is actually performed, such as in learning by imitation. For a long time, researchers thought dogs only mirrored the actions of other animals. Now, though, they suspect that the mirror neurons are also involved when it comes to emotions and feelings.
Sharing of moods takes place unconsciously. Feelings come and go. They typically exist for only a couple of seconds if we don’t hold on to them. Much too often, we allow ourselves as dog owners to be guided by these feelings instead of simply allowing them to run their course, which in turn affects our actions. What we feel and what we do ultimately rubs off on our dogs, and they react accordingly.
Mood transference makes sense
Mood transference makes sense. It is very helpful for animals that live in groups. In groups, it is important for all members of the group to pull together in the same direction in certain situations. Mood transference helps the group to achieve shared goals together. But that only takes place voluntarily, not under pressure. We can see the utility of sharing moods when the animals in a group simultaneously flee from predators in an attempt to save not just their own lives, but also those of the others in their social community. In addition, the reward and soothing system seems to be activated when a mood is shared between animals and people. That means sharing something creates a good feeling and contributes to a closer bond between human and dog, while deviant behavior causes stress.
Moods are shared in both directions
There has been a wealth of research, such as that done by Harvard professor Ellen Langer, explaining how thoughts influence our actions. This takes place not just in day-to-day life, but also in dog training. Both negative and positive feelings can carry over to our canine companions. The same phenomenon also occurs in reverse. When our dogs are happy, so are we, and we adopt a more relaxed attitude. If a dog solicits play from us in various ways, we get excited and adopt the same positive attitude.
This is something we can use when training our dogs in particular. Especially when encountering other dogs on walks – a situation that means stress, discomfort, and tension for many owners and their dogs on a daily basis – there are various ways you can cultivate a calm state of mind, like practicing meditation or breathing techniques. This will make you seem calmer and more authoritative to your dog, giving him a sense of security.
In summary, we see that mood transference is a wonderful, simple, and effective tool, and one that is quite natural and understandable for your dog, when it comes to communicating, working together, and resolving situations together as a team.