My clients are often surprised by how their mood effects their dogs. But this should come as no surprise. Gone are the old days where we assumed dogs were dumb animals with no cognition. According to a study at Duke University, dogs are known to have Theory of Mind. That means, they do spend effort in understanding the mental state of another being – their humans. They are specially equipped to read the slightest signs from us to interpret our moods and they often react to it too.
My emotional state when I return home hugely impacts the welcome my dogs give me. If I am in a good mood I always get a royal welcome. If I am slightly irritated my dogs act silly, but are gentle with me till I give into their antics. However if I am overly agitated, they keep a good distance from me, giving me plenty of space to get better. It’s truly fascinating how good dogs are at detecting the nuances of our moods.
Dogs also have an incredible sense of smell. Often, they are known to detect ailments in their humans, way before humans are even aware of it. This includes cancer, epilepsy and migraine. My husband frequently suffers from migraine. On such days, the dogs are incredibly tender with him even before he complains of the pain. Given this kind of power, it should be rather easy for them to sniff out mood-related pheromones that we emit. In short, there is no lying to a dog about how we feel. And given how invested they are in our wellbeing, it’s futile to expect that they remain impervious to our moods. It’s a good exercise to perhaps spend a little time introspecting our own emotional state and what effect it has on our dogs.
Some dogs get severely affected by our emotional baggage, to a point where it causes behavioural problems in them. In such situations I work with clients to figure out if there is a way to insulate the dog from the damaging emotions at home. For example, my dogs get so stressed if my husband and I have an argument that one of my dogs develops a fever. We now spend a few hours at a coffee shop each week to discuss and hash out our differences so that our dogs do not have to witness it. Work-related calls that can cause anxiety are taken out of the dog’s earshot.
Consider this time of the year. To the dismay of most pet parents, it’s time for fireworks. And most dogs react poorly to fireworks. Consequently most of us get very anxious about it. But given a dog’s sensitivity to our moods, are we not just adding to the dog’s stress with our anxiety? The dog is already panicking. In addition he perceives that his human, his pillar of strength, is crumbling under anxiety too. The situation looks far worse to him now.
It’s not just about “acting” cool in this situation. We do need to go deeper and figure out how to actually get calmer. One way is to do some deep breathing exercises. Put a hand on your belly and breathe so that the stomach moves. This is a known technique to calm ourselves down. It might not entirely calm the dog down, because fireworks are indeed scary. But it will at least reduce the burden of our own stress on our dog.