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Dog's emotional state matters

July 29, 2020 - Emma Hietarinta

Sport Psychology

My dog is high in drive – isn’t that just enough? Why should we care about our dog’s emotional states?

We all know that our dogs have feelings and emotions, and in recent years the animal scientists have become more interested in understanding how animals feel. Several studies have successfully adapted the human psychological models into animal welfare and animal emotion research1.

It is widely agreed that emotional experience vary in it’s valence (positivity/negativity) and activation level2. In this article we are going to explain the basic idea of a dimensional model of emotions. The Circumplex model of affect3 has been adapted to animal welfare sciences4 and here we are using this modified model to explain the importance of emotions in dog sports (Figure 1). If you are interested to see how we have applied this model to the obedience program, please see Mia’s articles here.


Figure 1. Here the affective states and different moods are represented in two-dimensional model. The vertical line refers to the arousal level and the horizontal line represents the quality of the mood. In the centre the lines the emotion is neutral and has medium level of arousal. Positive affective states are in the right half of the circle, and negative affective states in the left half. The words listed in the ”clouds” are the possible emotional states and moods the dog might be experiencing. Adapted from Russell (1980).

According to this model the emotional states have two systems working simultaneously: one related to the quality of the mood (valence), and the other related to the activity level (arousal system). Each emotional experience can be understood as a combination of these two dimensions, with different degrees of both the quality of the mood and the arousal level.

The arousal level dimension is related to the central nervous system: how the autonomic nervous system is reacting and how active the body is. Heightened arousal level means that the sympathetic nervous system is more active. Heart rate and blood pressure are increased and one is more alert. Then again when the arousal level is low, the parasympathetic nervous system is more active. The heart rate decreases and one feels more calm.

Fear, for example is described as a combination of a heightened arousal level and a negative valence. Feeling of joy on the other hand is a combination of a heightened arousal level and positive valence. These quite opposite experiences share similar arousal levels. The same arousal level and the same bodily reactions can be considers either pleasant or unpleasant. Thus the subjective experience depend on the interpretation and cognitive appraisal of the situation, stimulus, and physiological activity.

We can easily see whether or not our dog is physically active and high with arousal. It is much harder to interpret the quality of the emotional state. Read Mia’s article about interpreting dog’s body language. By observing the affective behaviour alone we cannot say much about the valence of emotional state that our dog is in. The emotional state of our dog is however not irrelevant, and it is not only a matter of having fun. Firstly the positive affect is a fundamental aspect of well-being. Secondly emotions have effect on several cognitive processes including attention, memory, judgement and problem solving5. The valence of the emotional state also affect how we approach the future events or how we evaluate neutral stimulus. 

Emotional experience tend to be cumulative and have long-term effects on the mood. If the dog has had frequent positive emotional experience during the previous training sessions, the dog will judge the new and ambiguous situations more positively. By increasing positive emotional states we are also enhancing the high hope attitude and a more optimistic outlook.

If you are interested reading more about the findings of recent animal emotion research, please see my upcoming article about this interesting topic published in August.


1Boissy, A., Manteuffel, G., Jensen, M. B., Moe, R. O., Spruijt, B., Keeling, L. J., … & Bakken, M. (2007). Assessment of positive emotions in animals to improve their welfare. Physiology & behavior, 92(3), 375-397.

2Posner, J., Russell, J. A., & Peterson, B. S. (2005). The circumplex model of affect: An integrative approach to affective neuroscience, cognitive development, and psychopathology. Development and psychopathology, 17(3), 715.

3Russell, J. A. (1980). A circumplex model of affect. Journal of personality and social psychology, 39(6), 1161.

4Mendl, M., Burman, O. H., & Paul, E. S. (2010). An integrative and functional framework for the study of animal emotion and mood. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1696), 2895-2904.

5Mendl, M., Burman, O. H., Parker, R. M., & Paul, E. S. (2009). Cognitive bias as an indicator of animal emotion and welfare: Emerging evidence and underlying mechanisms. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118(3-4), 161-181.