Emotion plays a big part in animal behavior, expert attests

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"We know that even fish have emotions," says Marc Bekoff, author of "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation" (New World Library, New York, NY, 2013; $15.95). "We chose the (book's) title because it's an attention-getter. The title also makes the case that some explanations are not as obvious as we think."

Bekoff is referring to the part about dogs humping.

"Most people think it's sexual, but usually it's not," notes Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. "It's a fascinating subject. Why do animals, dogs, cats, birds, bees, pigs, cows, elephants, chimpanzees do what they do? There are reasons."

As for humping dogs, Beckoff says sometimes dogs engage in this behavior because of the response they get from giggling family members.

"Dogs will, of course, do anything when they get our attention," he explains. "Another possible explanation is play, or maybe to express dominance."

But in Bekoff's book and other contemporary books covering this topic, the old dominance theory has been debunked.

"When dogs hump other dogs, dominance can be a consideration, but not if they're humping our leg," Bekoff says. "That's right, dogs have no interest in dominating us. They already are aware and content to be dependent on people. Dogs don't have thumbs, do they? They don't open doors, or open cans or packages to prepare meals. I call the relationship equitable. Dogs just want to be with people."

So do bees actually get depressed? According to Bekoff they do, "and may even become pessimistic. "

As recently as 20 years ago, many scientists and experts in animal behavior contended that humans are uniquely emotional beings. Bekoff laughs at this.

"It turns out we're not quite as unique as we thought. The tide as certainly turned."

Bekoff's 2000 book, "The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions," documented work on animal emotions for the general reader.

"Today, the discussion isn't so much about whether or not a very wide range of animals have emotions, but instead studying what advantage these emotions have. The time has come to debunk the myth of human exceptionalism ; it's hollow, shallow and we know simply untrue. We're simply not alone as the only emotional beings on the planet."

Pet owners have known for centuries that dogs and cats enjoy play, but so do many other animals on the planet. Bekoff is a pioneer for scientifically studying play behavior, and it turns out that many animals, ranging from deer to crows to some fish to chimpanzees, play.

"Typically, animals play when they are relaxed and in a good mood," Bekoff says. But do animals really experience good or bad moods? "Of course," he says.

"Play is fun, but there are also physical, social and cognitive benefits. And play is an effective way to learn, for crows to humans," Bekoff adds.

In "Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed" -- which is filled with nearly 100 short essays -- Bekoff notes that play is a great way to train dogs. It's interesting that some dogs begin to play far less as they reach middle-age. Is it about the dogs becoming more grown up?

"Not necessarily," Bekoff says. "I think it's about their owners disciplining dogs who are just having a good time, just being dogs. Perhaps their people are on the phone or busy and the people are sometimes just too serious, without time to play, which is the problem. Given the opportunity, many dogs will play even as they age. I think the dogs have got it right. I don't think you can play too much."

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is http://www.stevedalepetworld.com; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

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