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Let's Talk: Do Dogs Have Self-Esteem?

We chat with "Animal Madness" author Laurel Braitman about canine mental health.

 |  Jul 15th 2014  |   8 Contributions


Laurel Braitman and her partner went to work one day, leaving their Bernese Mountain Dog, Oliver, alone in their fourth-floor Washington, D.C., apartment. Plagued by severe separation anxiety, Oliver leaped out the window and fell 55 feet onto concrete, miraculously surviving the fall but requiring more than a month of treatment before he could walk again.

In order to make the jump, he'd had to push aside a 50-pound air-conditioning unit, then hold a heavy window pane aloft while chewing a big enough hole in the wire screen to fit his 120-pound body.

"It took him a while. He had time to abandon this project anywhere along the way," Braitman told me.

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Oliver suffered from severe separation anxiety and jumped out a window. Amazingly, he survived. (Photo courtesy Laurel Braitman.)

In humans, separation anxiety is linked to a lack of confidence. Having just written a book about the dictatorial highs and face-punching lows of human self-esteem -- Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself -- I suddenly wondered: Could Oliver's leap have been spurred by some canine version of that crushing sense of inadequacy, inferiority, incompetence, and existential terror that plagues some of us?

"If you look at the usual training practices and common sense about how you're supposed to raise puppies, it's all about increasing their confidence -- and I guess confidence in animals is the equivalent of self-esteem. That's why we're supposed to expose them to a variety of different environments -- because we don't want them to become adult dogs with phobias of jet planes or vacuum cleaners or men carrying suitcases," says Braitman, who was inspired by Oliver's anxieties to write her new book, Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots, and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves.

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Laurel Braitman and friend. Photo by Jill Weinstein

"In humans and animals," Braitman says, "behaviors that might indicate mental illness are whatever behaviors keep you from leading whatever your version of a normal life is, and which have no physiological causes."

The question of whether dogs have self-esteem -- high or low or somewhere in between -- hangs on the bigger question of whether dogs are self-aware. Does a dog know not only that it's a dog but also that it's not another dog? Does a dog recognize the traits and quirks that differ it from other dogs -- and does it judge those traits and quirks?

Does a dog ever think: I'm prettier than Foo-Foo! Or: I hate how I hump legs.

Scientists use a mirror-recognition test to classify animal species as being either self-aware or unself-aware. If, after their appearance has been altered superficially by researchers, members of a species consistently signal self-recognition by peering at their reflections while striving to "fix" this change in appearance -- for instance, by rubbing at colored marks that researchers have drawn on their foreheads -- that species is considered self-aware. If members of a species consistently show no interest in the mirrors, that species is classified as unself-aware.

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Does a dog know when she's being a good dog? Terrier and dog by Shutterstock

While dolphins, beluga whales and other species "pass" the mirror-recognition test, dogs -- and cats, for that matter -- "fail" it. Braitman, a TED fellow who recently completed a doctorate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the history and anthropology of science, calls this classification system "silly."

"What if some animals are fully aware that they're seeing themselves in mirrors, but they don't take any action because they just don't care?" she says. "I've never seen a dog or cat mistake the animal they see in a mirror for another dog or cat. Maybe these species just aren't interested in mirrors. Surely there are different types of self-awareness besides just the human type."

How do dogs experience their identities? Anyone who has ever spent time with dogs knows that inborn tendencies along with good and bad memories, physical conditions and environmental peculiarities -- nature and nurture -- shape dogs' bearing in the world, just as these same factors shape ours.

"When Ivan Pavlov was doing his famous experiments with dogs, he noticed that different dogs in his group reacted in different ways to similar experiences," Braitman recounts.

For example, in the days and weeks after a frightening flood in the lab, "some of the dogs were much more anxious than others. Some responded to the sight of any little puddle on the floor with panic," while others who had undergone the exact same flood trauma appeared unfazed.

"This fascinated Pavlov, who had been reading a lot of Sigmund Freud at the time," Braitman says.

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Pug with sad eyes by Shutterstock.

Animals definitely experience mental illness, Braitman asserts. Some display signs of it from birth, just as some humans do. But, as also happens to humans, animals can lose their emotional equilibrium at any crossroads henceforth.

"Dogs and cats both respond very strongly to structure," she says, "so what tips them over the edge is often a change in environment that alters their familiar structure -- for instance, when their favorite person in the household goes off to college or dies, or another animal is introduced."

How dogs demonstrate their low self-esteem varies as much as how we display ours.

"But if they repeatedly move away from you or seem overly timid, that could definitely be a sign," says Braitman, who has promised to reward Dogster readers with special "canine surprises" if they make themselves known at any of her upcoming readings.

On the flipside, "a self-confident dog is not an overly reactive dog. Self-confident dogs" -- that is, those with the canine version of high self-esteem -- "are calm dogs. In unsteady or uncertain new environments, they don't become aggressive or fearful or shut down. When people leave them alone, they don't become shaky, inconsolable messes" as did her own dog, Oliver.

"He was very un-confident. Whenever we left him alone, he felt like his solitude was going to last forever and he panicked as if he thought he was going to die. That was the kind of extreme experience he was accustomed to -- and it got so bad for him that he definitely risked his own life trying to escape that situation, maybe thinking he could go and look for us."

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Sad dog by Shutterstock.

As is true of many self-loathing humans, Oliver kept calm "only so long as everything in his life went exactly according to plan," and as long as Braitman and/or her partner were present. Even other human companions provided no comfort. "We couldn't leave him with friends or pet-sitters," she recalls.

As much as we empathize with unconfident dogs -- especially if we suffer from low self-esteem ourselves -- bringing such dogs into our daily lives might be more challenging than most of us could manage. That's why, sad as it is for the unconfident dogs, they're the ones whom we might want to avoid adopting.

When trying to choose a dog, "talk to the shelter staff as much as possible," advises Braitman, who is currently undergoing this process herself. "You'll learn more from these humans than from the dogs themselves," who while living at shelters "are often on their best behavior and/or suppressing their natural behaviors" -- either because they know they're "auditioning," or because losing their previous human companions has left them in a state of shock, "or because they're terrified," Braitman says.

"For whatever reason, sometimes it can take weeks or months for their most disturbing behavior to manifest." This behavior might indicate mental illness, "and might be why they were given away in the first place."

Braitman advises bringing small children to animal shelters "because they're better than adults are at picking up nonverbal cues from dogs. As long as they can be trusted not to try to ride a dog or pull its whiskers, little kids will notice things that we wouldn't."

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Cute sad black dog by Shutterstock.

Although he survived his four-story fall, her dog Oliver later died of an intestinal condition that Braitman attributes to his having eaten part of a wooden door in a kennel where he was experiencing separation anxiety. She grieves his loss, "but the silver lining to his story is that Oliver completely changed my view of human-animal interaction. He was the furry prism that changed how I saw everything," and inspired her to write this book.

In so doing, Oliver "speaks" for all of his fellow creatures who can't put their pain into words.

"When we're being panicky and fearful and anxious, we're being very much like other animals who can't escape the things that upset them. The most troubled and the hardest animals are the ones I love the most, because they stretch us. They force us to reckon with their issues, which forces us to wonder about their inner lives, because whatever's going on in their inner lives is affecting ours.

"We wouldn't have to think about these things at all if these animals weren't chewing the furniture or spraying our luggage or jumping out windows. Their anxiety makes us think about the hard stuff in life, which we as a species tend to avoid," Braitman muses. "Why would we be the only species whose resiliency unfolds along a continuum?"

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