My dog will routinely throw himself to the ground on a hike to punctuate his utter exhaustion, he simply can't go another step... until he thinks he hears a squirrel, then he launches to his feet and pulls on the leash with the force of ten men. This begs the question, was he really that tired and squirrels just elicit hysterical strength? Or, was he perhaps dialing it up a bit because he was tired of hiking?
As humans, we exaggerate our emotions to get what we want all the time. Ask any child about their candy acquisition technique, and they will tell you the key is to act really sad, and if you can squeeze some fake tears out, all the better. Same goes for getting out of a traffic ticket. But are dogs capable of this kind of manipulation/award-winning performance?
Do Dogs Feel Emotion?
Before we dive into whether or not dogs can fake emotion, we should make sure that can feel it at all. Luckily, science has done the work for us. Numerous MRI studies have tested the reward center of a dog's brain, and the results show that dogs respond to praise and food equally. Which means they can feel emotion. Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientist Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy -- and Why They Matter, explains that emotions are what cause your dog to behave differently in different situations. Excitement is what makes them wag their tail and lick your face, and distress is why they lose their mind over seeing a cat.
Researchers believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human two-year-old. While they have basic emotions, both dogs and human two-year-olds lack the complex feelings (like contempt, guilt, and pride) that you would find in an adult. So, if you're looking to avenge your enemies, you may have to go it alone, as your dog will not understand what is happening.
Are we anthropomorphizing our dogs?
There sure seems to be a lot of evidence that our pups are little drama kings milking it for all it's worth. How else do you explain their stare of "betrayal" when you leave the house, only to find them sleeping peacefully on the couch moments later when you forget your keys?
The answer is unintentional reward-based training. Dogs associate action with an outcome. If we dote on them with love and treats when we think they are sad or angry with us, the dog will repeat that behavior to get another reward. Your pup quickly learns "when I sigh, they grovel about how sorry they are that they have to go to work and give me extra treats... Great! I'll do that every time they leave, no problem."
How do you tone down the drama?
All is not lost if you've got a trained drama king in your house. You can tone things down. First, anxious tension is contagious, so allow your dog to follow your lead by staying calm. Try not to project your guilt on to them.
Next, don't reinforce the behavior. Wait until your dog isn't sighing to say good-bye and give them a treat. If you don't have time for that whole process, you can assure them, "Buddy, you're fine. I'll be right back" then give them give them a treat when you come home.
Lastly, give your pup a ton of exercise and affection on a daily basis. Most likely they just want to play with you and be the center of your attention, so grant their wishes... but on your terms.