With the help of a hospital intern, we carried Nick to my rental car and placed him gently on the backseat. In my heart, I felt like his reaction was one of grief, but my brain kept reminding me that he was a dog and I shouldn't anthropomorphize his response. How could he understand what had happened? If dogs are motivated only by seeking pleasure and having their own needs met, then why would Nick be so overwhelmingly sad? That little boy and his family meant nothing in terms of Nick's life.
Fearing he had suffered a stroke, I phoned a nearby veterinary clinic. A young vet helped me get Nick into a clinic exam room and, as I relayed the events of the afternoon to her, she proceeded to examine him. She found nothing wrong with him physically. He even stood up for her and finally walked with me back to the car. As the veterinarian followed us, she explained that Nick was perhaps upset because he knew I had been distressed. That would fit right in with the concept that dogs worry only about what might affect them, I thought. She explained that there really was no way to tell if a dog was truly feeling emotion. We could only describe the dog's behavior but could not speculate as to any inner feelings that might be causing the behavior.
I started to leave, not completely persuaded by her explanation but at least confident that Nick wasn't physically ill. I could see by the look on her face that she wasn't convinced by her textbook answers either. So I wasn't surprised to see her raised arm as I began to drive off, signaling me to stop. She leaned in and looked again at Nick in the backseat. Then she confided that her gut instinct was that Nick was experiencing grief for the child, the family, or both, and his behavior wasn't about his concern for me, at least not exclusively. She went on to say that I should be careful about putting him in such emotion- laden situations in the future, since he seemed to feel things so deeply. At least, she said -- ever the scientist -- his behavior indicated as much.
Trying to be a "true professional" when I started Canine Assistants, I was very careful not to credit dogs with any abilities or capacities not scientifically proven. I was so afraid of being perceived as an overly emotional dog person that I refused to open my mind. Well, as usual, Nick and the other dogs opened it for me. I began to realize that many things I know to be true haven't yet been proven scientifically. Of course Nick had been sad. I knew that in my heart all along. He had looked sad. His body literally sagged under the weight of his grief. He may have been concerned about me too, but he was undoubtedly experiencing his own intense emotions.
Time has taught me that dogs, like humans, are emotional creatures. Just watch a dog whose beloved owner returns home from a trip -- the dog jumps for joy.
Will it ever be possible for us believers to prove that dogs experience emotions? Well, yes and no. As Patricia McConnell says in her fabulous book, "For the Love of a Dog," "Emotions are slippery things." She is absolutely correct. Does your spouse have emotions? How do you know? Can you actually experience what he is experiencing internally? If not, then how can you know for certain that he has emotions?