expression of emotions

One area of study that can help in a variety of ways is the study of behavior. In my last post, I linked to a story of an adorable German Shepherd with behavioral problems. One of the key points is that it’s extremely helpful to have an “instinct” for dog behavior, to know how they’re feeling so as to better gauge what action they might take (will the dog bite? or will he submit?). Many people lack this instinct though. They simply haven’t developed it, and perhaps feel like they can’t develop this instinct.

I disagree. I think that with few exceptions most of us can learn to understand the signals that dogs give off. We can learn to read them, at least substantially become much better. Armed with this knowledge, we have an advantage from a training standpoint and in other ways.

As I’ve stated before, dogs and people aren’t so different. This “instinct” to read a dog’s signals, or a human’s signals for that matter, can inform us. We need to understand the emotion being felt by those around us. Why is this important? Behavioral psychologists will tell you that emotion is closely linked to action. In fact, the functional purpose of emotion in the first place is action. Negative emotions, like fear or anger, tend to lead to narrowed focus and action that is either avoidant or approach-oriented in nature. (In contrast, the more pleasant emotions can entail broaden-and-build behavior, such as pro-social behavior, networking, and the like.)

Dogs don’t feel the full range of emotions that we humans feel (due to complexity of cognitive structures that we humans have, as well as phylogenetic development), but the basic emotions are essentially shared.

A useful premise on this subject was written by someone who is no stranger to controversy, in his time and ours: Charles Darwin. We’re all familiar with his “controversial” work on the origin of species, i.e., evolution. His research led to the discovery of species evolving over time, via some mechanism (genetics) to be discovered later (by Mendel). But more pertinent to this posting is his work on the expression of emotion in animals and in the planet’s smartest animal, the human. (wiki link here)

If you’re interested in the subject, I recommend reading the original, and then reading Ekman’s follow-up book on the topic, wherein Darwin’s work is evaluated (mostly favorably) and Ekman injects contemporary knowledge on the subject (and Ekman is one of the foremost experts on the topic).

Not everyone will enjoy the wonkish detail, which is fine. There are lighter, easier books on the topic. But these two books are very good and will make the reader very much informed.

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