Do dogs have feelings?

Staff & Wire Reports

The Conversation

Do dogs have feelings?

August 24, 2018


Jan Hoole

Lecturer in Biology, Keele University

Daniel Allen

Animal Geographer, Keele University

Disclosure statement

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


Keele University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

If you live with a dog you just know when it’s happy or miserable, don’t you? Of course you do. Even the scientific community, now admits that dogs have emotions – even if scientists can’t directly measure what they are experiencing.

People have had a close bond with domesticated dogs for centuries. In his 1764 Dictionnaire philosophique, Voltaire observed: “It seems that nature has given the dog to man for his defence and for his pleasure. Of all the animals it is the most faithful: it is the best friend man can have.”

Research has shown time and time again the positive impact pet ownership can have on our lives. Indeed, a study of 975 dog-owning adults, found that in times of emotional distress most people were more likely to turn to their dogs than their mothers, fathers, siblings, best friends, or children.

It’s not surprising then that dogs are now the most commonly used animal in therapy. Our canine pals are being increasingly used as participants in a variety of mental health programmes – offering companionship, happy associations and unconditional love.

In the UK, Pets As Therapy (PAT) has more than 5,000 active PAT dogs, which meet some 130,000 people a week. In the US, the American Kennel Club has a Therapy Dog Program which recognises six national therapy dog organisations and awards official titles to dogs who have worked to improve the lives of the people they have visited.

Dogs who heal

Sigmund Freud is generally acknowledged as the accidental pioneer of canine-assisted therapy. During his psychotherapy sessions in the 1930s, a chow chow called Jofi stayed alongside him in the office. Freud noticed that patients became more relaxed and open when Jofi was present, and it helped him to build a rapport.

But the official beginning of animal-assisted therapy is generally linked to World War II, when a Yorkshire terrier called Smoky accompanied corporal William Lynne when visiting service hospitals in New Guinea. Her presence lifted the spirits of wounded soldiers.

Despite all this, it was not until the 1960s that the first documented case study of a dog working as a “co-therapist” was made. The US psychotherapist Boris M. Levinson maintained that the presence of his dog Jingles added a “new dimension to child psychotherapy”. Despite opposition from peers, Levinson strongly defended the use of dogs as therapeutic aids.

How dogs feel

But while there is no question that dogs are very good at understanding us, sadly the reverse is not always so true. A classic example of this is when someone has had a little “accident” in the house and dog owners think that their pet looks guilty. But for the dog in question, that look is purely submission and is a way for the dog to say “don’t hurt me” rather than an admission of guilt.

It is very difficult for humans to convince themselves that the canine brain is not able to understand the concepts of right and wrong – but without that ability it is not possible to experience guilt. The dog who is looking guilty is simply afraid of your reaction to the situation – usually based on past experience.

Some of the main difficulties that happen between dogs and their owners are caused by a humans inability to read their pet’s body language correctly. Combine this with the human notion that dogs understand abstract concepts and can use reason on complex issues, and the scene is set for problems.

Doggy hormones

Another way to tell how animals feel is to look at their hormonal environment. Studies have shown that when dogs are stroked by their owners they have increased levels of oxytocin. Among other functions, this hormone is thought to help relaxation. It helps to form bonds between mother and child – and between pet and owner.

So although we can’t know for sure how a dog feels during pleasurable activities, it seems reasonable that oxytocin produces similar sensations in dogs to those that humans experience – suggesting that they are feeling affection towards and attachment to their owners.

Similarly, dogs that are in unpleasant circumstances show raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. One of the situations that produces this stress response is being left alone for any length of time. Dogs are pack animals and really need to have company. A solitary dog is rarely a happy dog – and this is something that all dog owners should take into account when planning their lives.

What this all shows is that for dogs and people to live together and work together – and for both parties to be happy about it – an understanding of each other’s emotional state is vital. Even if dogs and people don’t completely understand each other, it seems clear that each species is essential to the other’s well-being and we can help each other to be happier and healthier.

Teaching V.S. Naipaul in the Caribbean

August 28, 2018

The late V.S. Naipaul is a celebrated son of Trinidad and Tobago. But he is also a prodigal son.


J. Vijay Maharaj

Lecturer, The University of the West Indies: St. Augustine Campus

Disclosure statement

J. Vijay Maharaj is affiliated with Friends of Mr Biswas, an NGO formed to provide support for young and/or upcoming writers and readers and to maintain the Naipaul house in Trinidad for this purpose, among others.

Like everyone else in the world, people on the twin-island Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago learned on Aug. 11 that Trinidad-born Sir Vidia Naipaul – better known as V.S. Naipaul – had died.

While newspapers in the U.S. and Britain ran tributes to this titan of English-language literature, reactions in the Caribbean have been more complex.

Naipaul is perhaps Trinidad’s most famous offspring. But many here consider the 85-year old writer a prodigal son, because he often disavowed his origins.

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Naipaul claimed England as his “home” and India as the country of his ancestors. He neglected to mention his birthplace and the setting for so much of his work: Trinidad and Tobago.

But Naipaul remains a celebrated part of the Caribbean canon, one of just three Nobel Laureates from the region. In 2007 he even participated in many events at the University of the West Indies, the Caribbean’s premiere public university, when it celebrated what it called The Year of Sir Vidia Naipaul.

As a lecturer in literature at the university’s St. Augustine campus, it’s my job to help students appreciate his conflicted literary legacy.

Naipaul the decolonizer

Naipaul’s family, like nearly half of Trinidad’s population, had Indian roots. Though his early novels were often comedies set in the Caribbean, the author left home to study in England. His later works – bleak reflections on India, Africa and the Muslim world – reflected Naipaul’s global outlook.

Caribbean schoolchildren first meet Naipaul as teenagers. One of his books is usually included in the public secondary school curriculum, which is specifically designed to make education a part of the region’s decolonization. Currently it is “A House for Mr. Biswas.”

Fifty-six years after independence from the United Kingdom, the Caribbean is still sloughing off a legacy of colonial rule: the perception that Caribbean culture is less rich, relevant and important than other cultures.

Naipaul, a complex literary titan.

“Silence in our school curriculum on the subject of Caribbean writers raised additional doubts about the literary merit of such works as well as the moral standing of their authors,” wrote the literary critic Rhonda Cobham-Sander in 2007. “[S]o we tended to talk about them, like the uncle who had fled to Venezuela … in the past tense, or the subjunctive.”

Today’s Caribbean curriculum, in contrast, teaches young people to embrace aspects of the local culture once considered embarrassing.

Naipaul, who was born under British colonial rule but came of age writing about the region’s drive for sovereignty, is seen as part of this post-colonial project.

The namesake of Naipaul’s picaresque “A House for Mr. Biswas,” for example, is bent on escape from living with his in-laws, the Tulsis. Even as his lot in life improves with residence in each of the Tulsis’ new homes, Biswas is never satisfied.

As Naipaul’s prologue makes clear, his protagonist is like the Caribbean in that way: He pursues sovereignty and personal freedom at the price of security.

Naipaul in the university

Over the course of their three-year undergraduate education, literature students at the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine may read Naipaul up to six times. Each course puts Naipaul to a different use as it aims to provide students with a different set of skills and competencies.

“A House for Mr. Biswas” again often appears on their first-year “Introduction to Prose Fiction” syllabus.

The short stories from “Miguel Street” may be included in their “West Indian narratives” coursework, and Naipaul’s “A Way in the World” is generally a key text for teaching postmodern literary theory. Advanced literature students may read Naipaul’s Indian trilogy in a third-year class called “Indian Diaspora Literature.”

For Caribbean readers, Naipaul’s characters — and the humor he derives from them — are immediately recognizable. Wikipedia

In my experience, students – especially those from Trinidad and Tobago, who form the majority of St. Augustine’s student body – generally connect immediately and powerfully with Naipaul’s work.

“Miguel Street,” for example, often evokes raucous laughter because its characters and events are so instantly recognizable to Caribbean readers.

In recounting her early readings of the book, Cobham-Sander, recalls “laughing till I cried at Man Man … and screaming with delight at the idea of his dog leaving symmetrical piles of droppings on the stools in the Café at the corner of Alberto Street where we regularly stopped for sweet drinks.”

Cobham-Sander was also certain that Naipaul’s protagonist Man Man was modeled on a real person – an eccentric neighbor of hers – demonstrating the author’s talent for capturing local daily life.

Naipaul the pop culture creator

As many scholars have asserted, Naipaul’s writing style shares a great deal in common with that most Trinidadian of persons, the calypsonian.

“It is only in the calypso that the Trinidadian touches reality,” Naipaul writes in his long travel essay, “The Middle Passage.” “The calypso deals with local incidents, local attitudes, and it does so in a local language. The pure calypso, the best calypso, is incomprehensible to the outsider.”

But, like the traditional “calypsonian,” whose aggressive lyrics often offend, Naipaul’s work can raise a reader’s hackles.

This is particularly true of the author’s many nonfictional texts.

In last semester’s advanced seminar in West Indian Literature, I taught “The Middle Passage” – Naipaul’s 1962 attempt to unveil the long-lasting aftereffects of slavery on the the Caribbean.

It is Naipaul’s very first travelogue, when he cut his teeth on the form, and it was a government commission. Trinidad’s first-ever prime minister, Eric Eustace Williams, asked the young writer to explore the post-colonial Caribbean and write a critique that would lay a basis for nation-building.

Instead, the devastating tome may well have severed his relationship with the region – and with generations of Caribbean readers to come.

Naipaul’s critics

Among other controversial takes on Caribbean history, “The Middle Passage” includes such indictments as “History is built around achievement and creation; and nothing was created in the West Indies” – this in newly independent region in the midst of rewriting its history.

A month before his death, Naipaul (in wheelchair, with his wife, Nadira Naipaul) attended a 50th anniversary royal celebration of Britain’s Man Booker Prize for literature.

For my students, the book’s reputation as a national betrayal was a real obstacle. Most told me they disliked the text. Some said it was offensive to West Indians.

And that was before they had even read it.

These same students had enthusiastically engaged with similarly difficult questions of slavery, race and Caribbean history in the work of cultural theorist Stuart Hall. His BBC video series “Redemption Song” asserts that whites and blacks lived together on plantations in “a mixture of cruelty and intimacy.”

But, with Naipaul, the students were less amenable to such ideas.

Reconciling Naipaul

The criticism that followed that book is one of the greatest difficulties professors face in teaching Naipaul.

How can we help students see Naipaul’s value as a post-colonial prophet when he so famously spurned the region during its quest to forge an indigenous identity?

How do students reconcile the Caribbean decolonizer they first meet in high school with the Caribbean skeptic they’ll debate as more mature readers?

Naipaul wrote for 60 years. He was knighted. He authored novels, essays and travelogues. He won every literary prize imaginable.

He was pandit, calypsonian and knight – a provocateur of different cultural persuasions and a defender of what he believed to be right – sometimes simultaneously, often contradictorily.

To paraphrase the author himself, Naipaul was a complicated man bearing all the complicated strands of his own complicated pasts.

In the Caribbean, accepting this V.S. Naipaul is a task indeed, for teacher and student alike.

Here’s how forests rebounded from Yellowstone’s epic 1988 fires – and why that could be harder in the future

August 28, 2018


Monica G. Turner

Professor of Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Disclosure statement

Monica Turner receives funding from the National Science Foundation, Joint Fire Science Program, US National Park Service Reserve Funds, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (UW2020 Initiative), and the University of Wisconsin Vilas Trust.

This summer marks the 30th anniversary of the 1988 Yellowstone fires – massive blazes that affected about 1.2 million acres in and around Yellowstone National Park. Their size and severity surprised scientists, managers and the public and received heavy media coverage. Many news reports proclaimed that Yellowstone was destroyed, but nothing was further from the truth.

I was there during the fires and returned that fall to view the aftermath. Burned forests extended for miles, with blackened tree trunks creating a stark and seemingly desolate landscape. But peering down from a helicopter, we were surprised to see that the fires had actually produced a mosaic of burned and unburned patches of forest.

I have studied the recovery of Yellowstone’s forests since 1989, watching landscapes of charred trees transition into lush young forests. Fires play an important ecological role in many ecosystems, and Yellowstone’s native plants and animals are well-adapted to historical cycles of disturbance and recovery. Today the burned landscape is dominated by thriving young lodgepole pine trees.

We learned much about how ecosystems respond to such fires because they burned mostly in national parks and wilderness areas. Post-fire management was minimal, and nature took its course through most of the burned area.

Because Yellowstone’s forests were remarkably resilient, the 1988 fires were not an ecological catastrophe. Today, however, climate and fire trends may be pushing forests beyond their limits. The rules of the game are changing fast.

Heat, drought and wind

Extreme weather conditions drove the 1988 fires, as they have fostered many recent fires across the West. Summers in Yellowstone are usually too cool and moist for such large fires, but the summer of 1988 was and remains the driest on record there.

Amounts of fuel (dead logs and pine needles on the ground and live trees) were not unusual, and there is no evidence that suppression of prior fires had much, if any, influence on the 1988 fires. Hot temperatures, severe drought and high winds set the stage.

Gusts over 60 miles per hour prevented me from flying over the fires in early July, well before the blazes made their biggest runs. Roads, rivers and even wide canyons spanning the Yellowstone and Lewis rivers did not stop flames from spreading on windy days. Strong winds carried burning branches ahead of the main fire front, advancing fire spread. The fires also continued to burn at night.

How burned forests recover

Severe fires have burned in Yellowstone at 100- to 300-year intervals for the past 10,000 years. “Crown fires” burn through the forest canopy, killing the trees while triggering a flush of new growth. Such fires are business as usual in Yellowstone and many other forests at high elevations and far north latitudes.

Lodgepole pines have thin bark and are readily killed, but often bear fire-adapted cones that allow them to regenerate right after fires. When heated, the cones release vast quantities of seeds that produce a new generation of trees. Fires also create ideal growing conditions, with plenty of mineral soil and sunlight.

In Yellowstone, wildflowers and grasses sprouted from surviving roots because soils did not burn deeply and retained key nutrients needed for plant growth. Native species steadily filled in the bare spots. Aspens – long a species of concern in the northern Rockies – established from seed throughout the burned pine forests, many miles from the nearest mature aspen trees. Many are doing well at higher elevations than their pre-fire distribution.

Yellowstone’s ecosystems recovered rapidly on their own. I suspect that many visitors no longer “see” evidence of the 1988 fires as they admire scenery and wildlife amidst a sea of green. Similar patterns of natural recovery following 20th-century fires have also been observed in Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Grand Teton National Parks, which also have evolved with fire for millennia. Historically, high-severity fires kill trees but do not destroy the forest.

Warming climate, more fire

The 1988 fires ushered in a new era of major wildfires that are burning more western forests each year. Summers and winters are getting warmer, and the hot, dry weather associated with large fires is no longer so rare. Snow melts earlier each year, fuels dry out sooner, temperature records are broken and fire season gets longer. Recent fires have burned in many national parks and monuments, including Bandelier, Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Yosemite.

A warmer, drier climate means that drought is getting worse in places that are already hot and dry. In the western United States, human-caused climate change has dried fuels and nearly doubled the area burned by forest fires from 1984 to 2015.

And while lightning ignites most fires in the northern Rockies, human ignitions are lengthening fire seasons in populated areas. Even in the moist mixed forests of the southern Appalachians, severe drought allowed a human-caused fire that started in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to rage into Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

What lies ahead?

Even forests that are well-adapted to large, severe fires are at risk in a warming world. By the late 21st century, hot, dry weather like the summer of 1988 could be the rule rather than the exception in Yellowstone.

Large fires are expected to occur more often, and are already starting to reburn forests long before they have had enough time to recover. In Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, fires in 2016 burned young forests that regenerated from fires in 1988 and 2000. Our studies of these recent fires have documented greater burn severity and fewer post-fire tree seedlings. Survival of these young trees is not guaranteed, as they are starting out in a much warmer world.

Big and severe fires are now burning more frequently and could threaten the resilience of Western forests.

National parks anchor many of the country’s last intact landscapes, and are among our best living laboratories for understanding environmental change. Research on the 1988 fires now provides a reference for assessing effects of more recent fires. Yellowstone will still maintain its beauty, native species and power to inspire us. However, only time will tell whether Yellowstone’s forests can maintain their ability to recover from fire in the decades ahead.

Staff & Wire Reports