I haven’t always wanted to be a psychologist. When I was 5 years old I wanted to be a dog. I perfected walking on all fours, wore a dog tag for a necklace, and was best friends with a Sheltie named Chaco. Now I am a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin - Madison studying emotion with Dr. Paula Niedenthal. But my interest in dogs is quite persistent.
In 2012 my boyfriend and I adopted a 9-month-old shelter dog named Ronan. He was smart and sensitive, compulsive about fetching, and loved to sleep under blankets. But over the next 3 1/2 years we watched helplessly as his fearfulness (of everything, from people to pinwheels) metastasized and became fear-based aggression. We worked with several excellent positive reinforcement-focused behaviorists, took countless classes with names like Feisty Fido and Reactive Rover, tried different medications, and never went anywhere without a pouch of treats to help with his training. Still, we couldn’t overcome the combination of Ronan’s negative early life experiences and genetic predisposition towards fearfulness.
After a biting incident, our behaviorist and vet advised we put him down, since his quality of life was becoming so poor and he was becoming dangerous. In spring of 2016 we said goodbye to the sweetest little cuddler we’d ever met. Failing to help Ronan, and eventually losing him, was the hardest thing I’ve experienced thus far. But I learned a hell of a lot about dog behavior and, I think, psychology in general.
Now we’re giving it another go with a sassy hound/shepherd mix named Lola. We wanted a puppy so we could ensure she’d be well-socialized and exposed to a variety of positive early-life experiences. At the time of this post she is 3 months old. Lola is everything Ronan was unable to be—fearless, resilient, outgoing, and sociable. We are still getting to know and appreciate her for the strong-willed and sweet individual she is. Sometimes, when she attaches to my shoe with her piranha teeth for the hundredth time, I miss Ronan’s heightened social sensitivity. A single stern look from me would have been sufficient to teach him that shoes are not chewable.
But this is the beautiful thing about having dogs, especially challenging ones, as a psychologist-in-training: I get an intimate look at how personality, learning, and emotion play out in another species. That is what I want to write about here. I won’t be discussing much of my own research, or making any new bold discoveries. This won’t be a dog training blog, since there are actual qualified experts writing excellent blogs and books. From my vantage point as a dog-obsessed emotion scientist, I simply hope to point out what dog behaviorists and human psychologists can learn from each other.