You can often tell when your furry friend is upset. An angry growl or bark lets you know about potential threats or danger. A whine or cry lets you know that your pet doesn’t feel well. They can even hop up and down to ask for feeding time or to be let outside.
But, what do we really know about feelings and emotions in dogs? Centuries ago, the scientists of the age considered animals, even domesticated ones, simple machines that respond to stimuli in a pre-programmed way. They were considered to not have souls and, therefore, incapable of feeling or demonstrating genuine emotions.
However, modern science has found new evidence of emotions (both positive and negative emotions) in dogs. Our advanced technology has allowed us to discover that dogs’ brains have the same structures that humans use to express and experience emotions. Dogs have some of the same hormones as humans, including oxytocin—the love hormone that aids in bonding and affection.
Science has discovered that dogs can feel the emotions any typical two-year-old human can but cannot express complex emotions that would appear later in life, like guilt or shame. Dogs can feel and express joy, love, fear, anger, and disgust.
Where’s the Proof?
Over the past decade, there have been several studies that helped prove beyond doubt that dogs have complex emotions:
Dogs Feel Both Attachment & Love – an October 2013 article in the New York Times revealed a study where researchers trained 12 dogs to enter M.R.I. scanners for brain analysis. The scans showed that dogs’ brains are, in fact, quite similar to human brains and that the same areas light up when a dog recognizes something or someone in its environment. In other words, it has feelings and emotions.
Dogs Can Read Our Moods – in 2018, researchers concluded that dogs read our moods. They found that dogs and humans process emotional data from the surrounding environment the same way.
Dogs Know Generosity When They See It – In 2017, a study was published about dogs recognizing generous versus selfish behavior. When put in a room with strangers who behaved either generously or selfishly, the dogs, when given the choice, would approach the nice stranger rather than the mean one.
Dogs Can Experience Empathy – a June 2012 study released on dogs and empathy showed that dogs would approach and try to comfort humans who were crying. They approached quietly and touched the humans gently.
Can Dogs Feel Complex Emotions Like Shame or Guilt? – this one is still up for debate. Many dog owners will insist that dogs who have acted out while an owner is away will act guilty for what they’ve done. Owners will say that a dog who left them a smelly present on the living room floor will hang his head in “shame.” However, scientists believe that such complex emotions are beyond the reach of a dog.
Dogs Can Get Jealous – scientists at the University of Vienna tested 43 dogs in 2008 to look for evidence of jealousy. When dogs were all given the same doggie treat for an identical action, all was well. But when the treats for some dogs were enhanced and others received no treat, the dogs on the no treat side stopped obeying and started showing signs of stress—they were unhappy with the unfairness of the situation.
Dogs Show Optimism and Pessimism – at Bristol University, in the UK, researchers found that dogs with separation anxiety could possibly be expressing pessimism. During experiments, dogs that suffered from anxiety would not approach a new and positive situation. They simply stayed with what they knew—and they weren’t happy about it.
Recognizing Emotions in Your Dog
Dog behavioralists will tell you that there are physical signs that indicate a dog’s emotions at any given moment. An attentive owner will learn to recognize these signs so as to be able to comfort a dog if he is afraid, ill, or nervous.
Fear – some of the signs of fear in dogs are actually similar to those in humans: hunching down to be as small as possible (to avoid detection); avoiding eye contact (to keep the threat from gaining power); flattened ears; shaking (from excess adrenaline); tucked tail; and hiding.
Happiness or Excitement – just like humans “jump for joy,” so to can dogs—and they love to do it! Some signs of happiness or excitement include a relaxed body posture, upright ears, a highly held tail, bounding around, and an open, smiling face.
Anxiety or Discomfiture – a dog in a stressful or uncomfortable situation may pant, lick his lips, yawn, avoid eye contact, move away from the situation, and display a lowered or tucked tail.
Being Uncertain – a dog that is unsure of a particular situation or person will exhibit a certain body language or a combination of behaviors: lip licking, avoiding eye contact, rolling onto the back and exposing his belly, holding up a paw for greeting, or humping behavior.
Fight or Flight (Self-Defense) – when your dog perceives a threat, he will get into fight or flight mode as a method of self-defense. Signs of this can include an intense stare with an unwillingness to move away, the bearing of teeth (with or without growling), body full of tension or in a crouched position, hair standing on end, and ears up and alert.
Putting Dog Empathy to Good Use
Since researchers and trainers have discovered the abilities in dogs to feel, sense, and respond to emotions, the use of therapy dogs (also called canine-assistance) has skyrocketed.
Therapy dogs help children or adults with mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic anxiety, bipolar disorder, and many others. The dogs are able to sense when the owner is starting to tense up or get uncomfortable. The dog then acts as a protector or cuddles next to the owner to offer emotional support.
Therapy dogs are often seen in hospitals and nursing homes as well. Their exuberance and joy at being around people bring a lot of smiles and laughter to patients who are otherwise not having a great day.
It’s clear that our dogs have emotions. Their body language tells us how they are feeling at any given moment. And, even though they aren’t capable of complex emotions (that we know of, at least), they are still our best friends for life!