Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?

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Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?
Are you anthropomorphizing? The feelings dogs actually experience— and those we project

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Most people can read emotions in their dog quite easily. For example, you come home and your dog dances around wagging her tail, and you think to yourself, “Lady is happy to see me,” or “Lady really loves me.” Or perhaps you’re out on a walk and, at the approach of another canine, your dog freezes in place, his hackles raised, and gives a low throaty growl. We interpret this as “Rex does not like that dog. Seeing him makes Rex angry.” In such situations the emotional state of our dogs seems quite obvious. For this reason it is difficult for many people to understand that the existence of emotions in dogs was—and in some places still is—a point of scientific controversy.

In the dim, distant past it was presumed that dogs had very rich mental lives, with feelings much like those of humans and even the ability to understand human language almost as well as people. However, with the rise of science things began to change. Mankind was now beginning to understand enough about the principles of physics and mechanics that we could build complex machines. In addition, we were learning that living things were also governed by systems that followed mechanical rules and chemical processes. In the face of such discoveries, religions stepped in to suggest that there must be more to human beings than simply mechanical and chemical events. Church scholars insisted that people have souls, and the evidence they gave for this was the fact that humans have consciousness and feelings; animals might have the same mechanical systems, they argued, but they did not have a divine spark and, therefore, did not have the ability to experience “true” feelings.

Since much of the science of the time was sponsored by church-related schools and universities, it is not surprising to find that the researchers would not assert the existence of higher levels of mental functioning such as emotions in animals. To do so might have caused the church authorities to feel that the scientists were suggesting that an animal such as a dog might have a soul and consciousness, and flying in the face of church doctrine could lead to a lot of problems.

The most prominent person to adopt this line was the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes. In a highly influential set of analyses, Descartes suggested that animals like dogs were simply some kind of machine. He would thus describe my Beagle, Darby, as simply being a dog-shaped chassis, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys. This machine doesn’t think, but it can be programmed to do certain things. Nicholas de Malebranche, who extended Descartes’ ideas, summed up the idea when he claimed that animals “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, act without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”

You might argue against this by noting that if you challenge a dog it clearly becomes angry, and this is proven by the fact that it snarls or snaps. Alternatively, it might become afraid, and this is proven by the fact that it whimpers and runs away. Those classical scientists and their successors would say that the dog is simply acting, not feeling. It is programmed to snap at things that threaten it, or if the threat is too great, it is programmed to run away. You might point out that if you kicked a dog it would yelp in pain and fear. These researchers might respond that if you kicked a toaster it would make a sound. Is this a yelp of pain indicating that the toaster is afraid? Their argument would be that dogs simply act and do not feel.

Science has clearly progressed a long, long way beyond the thinking of Descartes and Malebranche. We have now come to understand that dogs possess all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which, in humans, is involved with feeling love and affection for others. With the same neurology and chemistry that people have, it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions that are similar to ours. However, it is important to not go overboard and immediately assume that the emotional ranges of dogs and humans are the same.

To understand what dogs feel, we must turn to research done to explore the emotions of humans. It is the case that not all people have the full range of all possible emotions, and, in fact, at some points in your life you did not have the full complement of emotions that you feel and express today. There is much research to demonstrate that infants and very young children have a more limited range of emotions. It is over time that the infant’s emotions begin to differentiate and develop and, by the time they’ve reached adulthood, their range of emotional experiences is quite broad.

Why is such data important to understanding emotional lives of our dogs? Researchers have now come to believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities as well as emotions. Thus, we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs. Just like a two-year-old child, our dogs clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than found in adult humans.

At birth, a human infant only has an emotion that we might call excitement. This indicates how excited he is, ranging from very calm up to a state of frenzy. Within the first weeks of life the excitement state comes to take on a varying positive or a negative flavour, so we can now detect the general emotions of contentment and distress. In the next couple of months, disgust, fear, and anger become detectable in the infant. Joy often does not appear until the infant is nearly six months of age and it is followed by the emergence of shyness or suspicion. True affection, the sort that it makes sense to use the label “love” for, does not fully emerge until nine or ten months of age.

The complex social emotions—those which have elements that must be learned—don’t appear until much later. Shame and pride take nearly three years to appear, while guilt appears around six months after that. A child is nearly four years of age before she feels contempt.

This developmental sequence is the golden key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do and have all of the emotional range that they will ever achieve by the time they are four to six months of age (depending on the rate of maturation in their breed). The important fact is that we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust, and, yes, love, but the dog does not experience the more complex emotions like guilt, pride, and shame.

Many would argue that they have seen evidence indicating their dog is capable of experiencing guilt. The usual situation recounted is one in which you’ve come home and your dog starts slinking around showing discomfort, and you then find that he has left a smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It is natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that he is feeling guilty about his transgression. Despite appearances, this is not guilt, but simply a display of the more basic emotion of fear. Your dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment; he will never feel guilt because he is not capable of experiencing it.

So what does this mean for those of us who live with and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to dress your dog in that silly costume for a party. He will not feel shame, regardless of how ridiculous he looks. He will also not feel pride at taking home the top prize in a dog show or an obedience competition. But your dog can indisputably feel love for you and derive contentment from your company, and that’s really the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Like the Beatles sang, “all you need is love.” Thank goodness our dogs provide it in spades.

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Comments (12)

I personally take anything Stan Coren has to say about dogs with a grain of salt -- or maybe a large salt block like the kind they use for cattle. Why? Had the experience of having him as one of the trainers at a local club, and he was pretty darn CLUELESS! I specifically disagree with him about a dog's inability to feel guilt. I had an incredibly smart and exceptionally good young dog who rarely got even scolded and had never been punished. He had never been scolded for "accidents" in the house, as he literally only had a couple when he was a tiny baby and then he was 100% housebroken. Still, I came home one day and he looked "guilty". I had never seen him exhibit this behavior, so I asked him, "Did you do something? What did you do?" He quite literally led me into the dining room, where I discovered that he had pulled my brother's 'little black book' off the table and made confetti out of it -- we're talking a million specks of paper all over the room! He stared at it, then stared at the floor, glanced at me, then glanced at the floor again looking very contrite and absolutely guilty. His "punishment" consisted of me picking up a handful of paper bits and telling him that "This was NOT a good thing." He couldn't have felt worse than he already did, so there was no point in doing anything more. Plus, this misbehavior was so terribly out of character and -- quite frankly -- so amusing to me, that I was having trouble mustering anything other than laughter. Even after I told him, "It's okay now, you're forgiven," he didn't really perk up for a while. Fear of punishment? I don't think so!
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:22
I think science still has a very long way to go before we have a complete understanding of these amazing animals. I too, disagree. I think a dog can absolutely experience pride. I've witnessed it in two dogs I've had. Both had remarkable intelligence and perhaps that accounts for further development. When our dog, Dillon, competed in a costume contest he did two things he had never done before. 1. He posed for the judges. 2. When they announced him as the winner he started jumping up and down and barking.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:47
What about the dog's ability to empathize or feel sympathy? Stanley Coren doesn't mention that emotion. I once had a dog that would cry tears whenever I was crying about something. Her eyes weren't running from allergy or anything like that. She was crying real tears of sympathy that ran down her face just like mine did. I think that it is common for the scientific community, and humans in general, to minimize the feelings of animals and their capability of expressing emotions similar to ours. I am sure that makes it easier for some humans to do the terrible things they do to animals. Here's a question to consider: If over time dogs have adapted to our grain-based diet and no longer eat the diet of their wolf ancestors, then why couldn't they also be able to adopt our emotions? This amazing species remains grossly underestimated by the two-legged species they are most closely associated with. Both are still evolving.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 14:24
I also disagree with this story...anyone who has ever even loved a dog knows that they have feelings,and show emotion just as a human would...I actulally believe in some aspects of life dogs are more emotionally advanced than humans!!! You don't see dogs needlessly killing each other every night on the news!!!
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 17:17
Having spent every day of my life caring for dogs (and vice a versa) I can tell you this guy missed the boat Maybe he's limited in his own feelings and observations and projecting his limitations on the dogs. Dogs absolutely do feel pride are absolutely thrilled when they do something that pleases us. Brain chemicals change with positive or negative emotions and dogs have evolved way beyond what people realize! They are way smarter than we give them credit for - Probably in part because of their basic good nature. My dogs knows when I'm happy, sad, angry or indifferent and respond accordingly. I've had dogs lick me when I'm crying because they knew I was suffering. And our dogs "searched" for months since the passing of their best friend- our Neopolitan Mastiff and literally mourned when I brought out his collar & leash. I think they're much more grounded than we are.
Fri, 01/25/2013 - 11:46
I very much looked forward to reading this essay, hoping for insights into the canine emotional system, but I found it to simplistic and extremely limited in its thinking. Even someone with limited observational experience of dogs could provide a more richly nuanced portrait of their emotional capacities. For example: when my grandmother was dying, our dog (who had never been allowed on the bed) kept vigil for three days, curled at the foot of the bed. He was quiet and attentive, a calming presence in the room. I have no idea what he was thinking or feeling, but he knew (before anyone else accepted it) that she was dying, and he stayed by her side until she was gone. He then moved to be with my grandfather, licking his hand and keeping him company. I do not think a human toddler would have had the emotional depth or capacity to know to do any of that. I cannot fathom what was going through our dog's mind, but I do know that he performed a service for which our family was -- is -- profoundly grateful; he wordlessly, lovingly did something that none of us humans was quite able to do in that moment. I think that Mr. Coren really misses out on the range of dog's behavior and emotional depth by trying to fit it into too neat a human developmental model. Try again....
Wed, 01/30/2013 - 13:24
This is a very poorly thought article that sorely misunderstands recent science about dogs, emotions and language. It's disappointing to see how far nonsense can spread, and then receive accolades. In philosophy, my field, one must factor in epistemology, that is, the limits of human knowledge, including what is known, yet unknown and the unknowable. Coren crosses these boundaries willy-nilly, making a mockery of human reason and the science of dogs alike. The section about Descartes treats a mere myth as if fact. This reductive account of Descartes’ position is often perpetuated by people who have not read his works. Dogs show evidence of feeling shame, pride and other emotions no more or less than love. While there is no way to prove this in dogs, there is equally no way to prove it in human beings -- save by taking their words -- and in this case people may lie. In short, accurate and definitive measures of intelligence and emotions in the sciences do not exist, and so to claim knowledge about either is stretching the truth, at best.
Sun, 02/03/2013 - 10:49
Dogs definitely have many of the traits and emotions of humans and I found the article a bit lame, to say the least. I see it as hardly giving our divine canines enough credit-on many levels. I have to say that when it comes to two important traits that humans and dogs both possess- it is the canine that will win out every time in upholding these- and they are UNCONDITIONAL LOVE & LOYALTY. Many dog lovers will probably be the first to vouch for our beloved canines in this respect and say that most humans fail to even come close to showing the true UNCONDITIONAL LOVE AND LOYALTY, that dogs do! When it comes to pure unconditional love and loyalty- I have always felt dogs will beat humans hands down, every time!
Fri, 02/15/2013 - 20:54
I just don't believe this article. I think it's totally wrong and shows a complete lack of insight. I think babies and dogs are much emotionally sophisticated than outlined. I completely reject this ridiculous, overly simplified article.
Thu, 04/04/2013 - 18:31
Dogs are complex beings. Intelligence is simply one representation of complexity, but true complexity can only come from emotion and experience. Intelligence is a form of complexity, but in essence, it is simply a language - a language which can describe, manipulate and alter the circumstances around them. However, if you look at emotion itself, it is beyond any verbal or non verbal explanation. The smartest human entities can spend life-times trying to explain emotion, but they will always fail to do so using any form of intellect. Emotion must be felt and experienced in order to be understood. Dogs cannot describe the most complicated experience of man and yet they too share the experience of emotion. They are not separated from emotion through thought or through the act of analysation. Does cannot analyze emotion in the same capacity of humans due to their limited intellectual capacities, and therefore, they, being the "lesser" beings are more connected to their emotional lives than most humans can truly say they are. I've witnessed so many emotions being displayed across my dogs' faces and i can say with certainty, that dogs share this earth with humans from a more soulful perspective than any other species. Dogs are and will never be pets. If you invite a dog into your home, do so knowing that you are officially inviting a new member into your family.
Thu, 09/05/2013 - 21:02
I have also seen my dog express more than these simplistic emotions. Although I have not reached the point where I can interpret them 100% unfortunately. I do agree that dogs probably reach the maximum level of a 2 to 3 year old child, but children develop at wildly varying rates, and having witnessed dogs lying by coffins of dead owners, and leaping for joy when they achieve a new goal, is evidence enough to me that, some of them, can and do have the ability to express more complex feelings than non dog owners probably believe.
Sat, 11/09/2013 - 09:25
how dare u say that animals don't have feeling u feeling less ###########
Wed, 04/23/2014 - 12:21

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