Feelings… nothing more than feelings!

Carolyn Menteith is a behaviourist at tails.com with over 25 years of experience working with and training dogs.

Last week was a big week in the UK for animal welfare. With the Queen’s Speech came an undertaking from the government to put in place a wide range of measures to improve the lives of the nation’s animals – and I for one celebrated that with a bottle of champagne this weekend! 

My particular joy comes as all indications show that remote controlled training devices (electric shock collars!) will finally be banned in England – as they have been in Wales since 2010 and have been legislated against in Scotland. This is a battle I’ve been on the (often bloody) frontline of for over 15 years and to think it is finally won, definitely merits a glass or two of bubbly!

That isn’t all that was in the Queen’s Speech though, and a lot has been made in the media about animal sentiency being written into law. There are various dictionary definitions of sentiency including: the capacity to be aware of feelings and sensations; the capability of experiencing things through the senses; and the ability to experience feelings. Whichever definition you prefer, I am sure the vast majority of people who live with a dog have never for one moment doubted their dog’s sentiency.

What people don’t always understand however is what that actually means. It means that we are living with a thinking, feeling, emotional creature very similar to ourselves. We do not just have a responsibility to provide for them physically with food, water, shelter, exercise and appropriate veterinary care but we also have to provide for them mental and emotional needs too.

Just think about that for a moment. That is *a big thing*. We have to recognise and understand how our dog is feeling.

This is particularly important when it comes to looking at behaviour problems. Behaviours don’t just happen. Everything a dog does is a symptom of how they feel. Just like us. Your behaviour might be to get up and go to the fridge but that is just a symptom of you feeling hungry or thirsty. Your behaviour might be to run away from that lion who is chasing you but that is just a symptom of you feeling (not unreasonably) scared that you were going to be on the lunch menu. 

Every behaviour is the symptom of an emotion. 

As a behaviourist part of my job is to help people understand how their dog is feeling – and then help them ask the right question. People often start off by just wanting to stop the behaviour. “How do I stop my dog…?” The problem with this question is that it doesn’t recognise that the dog is doing that behaviour because of the way they are feeling.

The question should be “Why is my dog doing… and how can I make them feel better in that situation so they don’t feel they have to do that?” Or when it is a behaviour that the dog enjoys, the questions should be “How can I give you an appropriate outlet for the thing that you love doing – or give you something even better to do instead?”

Training a dog is not like programming a computer. Computers do the behaviour you programme them to do without emotion. They are not sentient. Thankfully the law is set to put animal sentiency into the statue books and recognise once and for all that animals have feelings and emotions – and that is why they behave as they do.

As I came out of a supermarket yesterday, I was accosted by a wildly enthusiastic spaniel puppy who dragged his owner over to me and threw himself on my legs wiggling and wagging. “Oh I’m so very sorry,” the harassed looking women exclaimed over the top of her two small children “he has a mind of his own.” 

All I could do was smile. “Yes… yes, he really does.”

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