Why Dogs Like to Chase Moving Objects

The Emotional Center of Gravity.

Originally published in slightly different form on May 10, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Why Do Dogs Like to Chase Things?

Some would say, “They do it because they think it’s a bird or a squirrel.” Others might propose that some dogs just have a “strong ball drive” or a strong “toy drive.”

Since the kind of dogs who enjoy chasing tennis balls and Frisbees seem to really, really enjoy it, I think the real reason probably lies more within the realm of emotion than abstract thought or pure instinct.

Dog trainer Kevin Behan says that when dogs chase prey objects, they’re projecting their emotional centers-of-gravity on to them so that the objects create an emotional displacement in the same way that heavy objects create physical displacement in a body of water, an idea he elucidates in his upcoming book, Your Dog Is Your Mirror: The Emotional Capacity of Our Dogs and Ourselves. (This echoes Freud’s comparison of the unconscious mind to water behind a dam.)

At first this idea may seem a bit strange and far-fetched. But even we humans project parts of ourselves onto inanimate objects, real or imagined, and in so doing, we unconsciously move our own bodies, even if only slightly, along with the movements made by those objects. In fact I think there’s a clear correlation between Behan’s idea that dogs project their emotional centers-of-gravity onto moving objects, and the kinds of physical and emotional changes people experience when watching certain kinds of movies, playing video games, or viewing some athletic competitions.

Starting at the Movies

Film audiences tend to react to certain scenes in certain types of motion pictures (most notably suspense, horror, and action films) in a way where our physical bodies, including our sense of balance (or center-of-gravity), not just our minds and emotions, get caught up in the action. This started with silent pictures and continued on through the great Alfred Hitchcock films, the first modern blockbuster, Jaws, and now with Avatar.

In 1896, when the Lumiere Brothers’ showed their first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, some audience members jumped to their feet and ran for the exits, thinking that the steam engine was coming right at them. When the great white shark first jumped out of the water in Jaws, audiences literally jumped back in their seats to try to escape its teeth.

Video Games

We also react to video games in much the same way, i.e., we move our bodies in concert with the action on the video screen. Of course modern platforms, like Nintendo’s Wii, come with a handheld remote containing built-in accelerometers that enable players to not just mimic but create the motions of the characters they see on the screen. Yet I remember experiencing the same sort of feeling when Pong came out in the 1970s.

Pong was an insanely simple, two-dimensional video device which simulated a game of ping-pong, with a slowly moving circle as the “ball” and two vertical lines, that could only move up and down, as “paddles.” But there was a specific wrist movement that could put a bit of English on the “ball” and send it zooming across the screen. The funny thing is, anytime my friends and I attempted this maneuver, we didn’t just use our wrists, we shifted our weight onto one foot and threw our backs into it, even though it had no effect on the machine itself.

Most people do something similar when watching TV. When we see an ice skater doing a triple axel, for example, or a quarterback’s jersey being grabbed by a defensive lineman, as he strains to keep from being tackled, our bodies tend to strain along with the action on the TV screen (if only slightly), in a kind of sympathetic movement.

What I think is even more interesting, is that as sports fans we also project a part of our “selves” onto the movements of the ball, not just the athlete. When we see a golfer hit a putt, for example, and watch the ball slowly rolling across the green toward the cup, we sometimes feel our bodies moving in alignment with the ball’s trajectory; we tilt our heads and shoulders, as if “willing” it to go in the cup.

We can also feel ourselves hanging momentarily on the rim of a basket when watching the final moments of a close basketball game, or feel a flush of pleasure when a player we’re rooting for makes a three-point shot, as if a part of ourselves had actually gone swishing through the net.

The main reason movies, video games, and spectator sports are so popular, and produce such huge revenues for the companies that produce them, is that they give us a vicarious thrill. And the more we feel that experience physically, not just mentally or emotionally, the stronger the thrill.

But while it’s true that a part of what we feel is dependent on the very human ability to imagine ourselves being in someone else’s shoes, the fact that our bodies sometimes move of their own accord, or even the fact that we sometimes feel as if we’re moving when we’re actually stationary, suggests that our minds aren’t in complete control, or even aware, of what’s going on. One possible explanation is that, like with dogs and tennis balls, we’re projecting our emotional centers-of-gravity onto the action.

The Emotional Center of Gravity

As far as I can tell, there’s no scientific research for this idea of an “emotional center-of-gravity.” However, a recent study shows that when we think about the past we tend to unconsciously shift our weight and lean back in our chairs. When we think about the future, we shift our weight forward. These are purely unconscious responses.

Another study showed that the more emotional weight we attach to an object, the heavier that object actually feels to us. This last study is consonant with the idea that our emotions may have a subtle effect on how our bodies unconsciously relate to gravity.

Of course it’s a mistake to try and equate human behavior with the way dogs behave while on an outing in the park. And yet, the neurological mechanisms for physical movement, coordination, and balance— contained within the brain stem, motor cortex, and the cerebellum—are much the same in both humans and canines. The human system is more sophisticated because we walk upright, and have fingers and thumbs, etc., but at bottom it’s the same basic mechanism in both species.

In fact, a 2004 study, done at the University of Arizona, shows that when dogs chase Frisbees, they rely on the same “viewer- based navigational heuristics” found in baseball players chasing a fly ball. (“How Dogs Navigate to Catch Frisbees,” Shaffer, Krauchunas, Eddy, and McBeath, 2004, American Psychological Society).

I think if we can be manipulated into feeling like we’re being threatened by a great white shark, or about to be run over by a train, or shifting our centers-of-gravity needlessly while playing a two-dimensional video game, or watching a snowboarder flying into the air in an acrobatic stunt, then it’s not too much of a stretch to entertain the idea that dogs might project their emotions, and perhaps even their emotional centers-of-gravity, onto what to them would be similar objects of attraction: Frisbees, sticks, and tennis balls.

And whether it’s vicarious or not, most dogs seem to get a pretty big thrill out of doing it.


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