There is nothing warm and cozy about her room. It’s just three feet by five feet of hard, thin strands of interlocking steel. Overhead, the long, yellow fluorescent lights buzz incessantly like annoying mosquitoes. There is nothing to buffer the non-stop barks and echoes that follow. The disinfectants and bleach vapors burn her strong olfactory systems.
Nia is not a puppy –which almost everyone wants, she is not a particularly pretty dog, but very sweet, and she tends to be a little hyperactive. Because of this, she has sat in the shelter for four months with no adoption prospects. That’s 120 days staring at the same cinder block wall; 2,880 hours of lying on the uncomfortable wire tray without the distraction of a toy or something to chew; and 172,800 minutes hoping that each human who walks past her kennel will take her outside and far away from her kennel run.
Given her situation, how can she still be a ‘happy’ dog? Here is where some will argue – Nia can’t be happy, she is just a dog. Just a dog. Dr. Patricia McConnell posits in her book, For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, that before we can determine if dogs share human emotion or feelings, we must identify what an emotion is. While complex, every emotion includes these three things:
1) Physiology (changes in body, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweat)
2) Changes in expression (facial and body; eyebrows raise, mouth tightens, body stiffens)
3) Thoughts that go along with the feelings (“I may fail,” “she doesn’t like me”)
While our thoughts are different from dogs, we can observe that dogs demonstrate these components of emotion just as humans do. The basic emotions (fear, anger and happiness) are primal and are shared among both species. Anger provides the charge to protect ourselves or others. Fear arises when our safety or survival is ‘threatened’ and our brains have to determine whether we ‘freeze, fight or flight.” Happiness and love are cousins – and, as social beings, we are both hard wired to crave love and belonging.
All of this makes sense as to ponder why so many of us feel so connected to dogs and why dogs can help us physically, emotionally and therapeutically. Yet curiously, millions of dogs are sentenced to shelters every year. Nia still sits in the county pound…waiting….wanting a warm bed and someone to love her. Dogs like Nia are excellent candidates to work with troubled youth who often feel unwanted, share similar emotions, are “locked up” like Nia and have behavioral challenges that impede upon their ability to be successful in homes and in the community. In my next blog, I will discuss how shelter dogs can be helpful in therapy. Thanks for reading.
Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.