What could he be thinking?

Recently, a client asked if I could hypnotise my dog as he has a habit of barking in an agitated way when people walk up the path. My intuitive answer was ‘no’ but it made me curious to go back to a chapter (‘Is a growling dog angry?’) in a book I read a while ago.

The question begins with trying to understand how my dog is feeling when people walk up the path. In the book ‘How emotions are made’, Professor Lisa Feldman-Barret suggests that emotions are shaped by language and culture much more than we used to think.
The book explains that emotions are formed initially through our interoceptive network. This is the system of neural pathways and circuits that provide information on the internal state of our body. Feldmann-Barrett acknowledges that dogs have a similar brain circuitry and nervous system to humans. However, for dogs to experience the emotion of anxiety (in the way we would perceive it) it would require: interoceptive awareness, the ability to learn emotional concepts and the capability to communicate these concepts in wider social groups. Based on the research evidence it is likely that dogs display the first two capabilities.

Rather than experiencing emotion, it might be more accurate to say that they experience ‘affect’. Research with macaque monkeys shows that they experience same bodily changes as humans do when watching positive and negative events. By tracking their eye movements and cardio-vascular responses researchers observed different responses when macaques observed video footage of monkeys foraging and grooming than when the other monkeys appeared distressed.

Animals use olfactory and visual cues, or ‘concepts’ (such as tail wagging) to identify friend or foe and Feldmann Barrett suggests animals can learn additional concepts if they are rewarded. When interacting with humans, dogs are attentive to gaze, tone of voice and some learned commands (‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’, ‘teddy’ etc). In this sense, animals show a capacity for understanding concrete objects and action-based concepts. However, humans have an additional capacity for goal-based concepts. For example, a dog may learn the concept ‘to climb’ in a literal and context-dependent sense whereas humans can perceive that different contexts of climbing (a tree, a staircase and rockface) share a similar mental goal.

We have a natural tendency to anthropomorphise animal behaviour and infer a ‘guilty look’ when our pet has guzzled a piece of food from the table. However, it seems that emotion is in the eye of the beholder. In one experiment the owner instructs the dog not to take the biscuit from the bowl and then leaves the room. In the next step, the experimenter enters room and either gives dog the biscuit or reinforces the command not to take the biscuit. When the owner comes back into the room the experimenter tells the owner either that the dog has or hasn’t taken the biscuit. They found that the scolded dog was perceived to display guilty behaviour regardless of whether the dog had taken the biscuit.

Feldmann Barrett stresses that it’s not a question of superior/inferior cognitive capacity. Humans and dogs are just well adapted to their environmental ‘niche’ and she encourages us to learn more about our animals on their own terms.
So, in response to the original question, my hunch is that hypnosis would not be an effective way of changing my dog’s behaviour. Hypnosis is an active mental state which enables clients to reconnect with a positive experience, disassociate from negative ones and visualise positive change. We use positive language, imagery and metaphor to help the client reframe problems and find solutions. Therefore, my dog might enjoy hypnosis in a limited way (such as the calming pace and soft tone of my voice!) but there would be limitations in our shared conceptual vocabulary to bring about the desired change.
He often lies on the floor outside my therapy room, and occasionally is invited into the session by some of my younger clients. But I will stay in my lane and consult the dog behaviour experts on this!