Do Dogs Have Feelings?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 22, 2020
The science of whether dogs have feelings has been long debated, with many scientists questioning whether an individual needs to be consciously aware in order to experience emotions. While modern day scientists are mostly in agreement that animals do experience emotions, the debate continues as to what emotions they are able to experience. In general, basic emotional states that are crucial for fitness and survival in nature, are believed to be experienced by animals, including dogs. People that have dogs as pets would probably argue that dogs are capable of more complex emotions. But does the science support this? This article will provide an overview about what we know about dog emotions, and what we still have left to learn.
Feelings Versus Emotions
Feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions. Since it is impossible to prove consciousness in humans, let alone dogs, many researchers focus on the study of emotions instead. Emotions are associated with physiological reactions that are activated through neurotransmitters and hormones released by the brain (Kujala, 2017). Dr. Frans de Waal, a well-respected biologist and primatologist, defines an emotion as:
“An emotion is a temporary state brought by biologically relevant external stimuli, whether aversive or attractive. The emotion is marked by specific changes in the organism’s body and mind – brain, hormones, muscles, viscera, heart, etc.” (de Waal, 2011).
The measure of an emotion can be expressed across two dimensions – arousal and valence. The arousal and valence of an emotional response are known as core effect (Mendl et al., 2010; de Vere & Kuczai, 2016). By examining the core affect, we can further understand the subjective experience of animal emotional responses. An animal’s arousal can be defined as the energy state associated with the emotion experienced. For instance, does the animal appear excited or depressed? Is the animal active or inactive? Valance refers to whether the experience is considered negative or positive. Animals perceive positive experiences as rewarding and pleasant, while negative experiences are perceived as unpleasant or punishing. Examples of high arousal and positive valence emotions, perceived as rewarding, include excited and happy. High arousal and negative valence emotions, perceived as punishing, include fearful and anxious. Relaxed and calm are examples of emotions with low arousal and positive valence, while sad and depressed are emotions with low arousal and negative valence.
List of Other Emotions
Other emotions that have been studied and used to describe animals include (Bekoff, 2000; de Vere and Kuczai, 2016):
Do Dogs Have Feelings?
Feelings are subjective and are therefore difficult to study scientifically. Researchers therefore focus their efforts on the study of emotion, which can be measured by examining levels of hormones and regions present in the brain, among other physiological measures. By comparing hormones and brain regions present in humans with those present in dogs, we can infer whether or not the dog is capable of experiencing the same emotions. We can also examine how a dog’s behavior changes in different situations. Research has shown that dogs will behave differently according to the emotional situation, show emotionally driven expectations, experience affective disorders, and show some evidence of empathy (Kujala, 2017). Humans and dogs have shared brain structures, biochemistry, and behavior, suggesting that the also share emotional experiences (de Vere and Kuczai, 2016).
Dogs are believed to be mentally similar to a 2-year-old human. As humans age, they develop the ability to experience more complex emotions. Young humans experience excitement and arousal first. They then begin to develop emotions of distress, fear, anger, joy, suspicion, shyness, and love and affection over time. After 2 years of age, they begin to develop more complex emotional processing including shame, pride, guilt, and contempt. It is thought, by comparing brain structures and connections, that dogs are capable of experiencing these basic emotions present in humans early in life (Jensen, 2007; de Lahunta and Glass, 2009; Evans and de Lahunta, 2013).
Emotions of fear and anxiety are heavily researched in animals in many fields including evolutionary ecology, personality research, veterinary behavior, and neurobiology (Tiira et al., 2016). These emotions are among the most fundamental emotions required for animals to survive and cope in potentially dangerous situations and are believed to be experienced by dogs (Bateson, 2011; Hohoff, 2009). Another study has shown that jealousy is another emotion shared by dogs and human infants (Harris and Prouvost, 2014). Dogs in this study displayed jealous behaviors when their owners gave affection to another dog. An additional study explored whether dogs could feel more complex emotions such as guilt or shame. This study concluded that dogs did not experience these emotions, and that the behaviors displayed were really fear. The fear of being punished caused dogs to respond in a way that owners misinterpreted as guilt (Horowitz, 2010).
Do Dogs Have Feelings For Their Owners?
This may seem obvious to dog parents, but scientists agree that dogs do feel emotions towards their owners. In a study exploring empathy in dogs towards humans, dogs were shown to be empathetic towards crying humans (Custance and Mayer, 2012). In another study, similar brain sensitivity towards vocal cues of emotional valence were found in both dogs and humans (Andics et al., 2014). In other words, happy sounding voices lit up the same brain regions in dogs and humans, and shared regions were lit up in response to angry voices. By comparing brain regions and hormones (especially oxytocin) in dogs compared to humans, we can also conclude that dogs experience love and affection as well.
Which Feelings Can Be Easily Recognizable By Dog Parents?
Humans seem to be best at detecting friendly and happy dog behavior, whereas we struggle a bit more in identifying aggression and fearful emotions (Tami and Gallagher, 2009; Wan et al., 2012, Mirkó et al., 2013; Lakestani et al., 2014). Children especially struggle with detecting fear or aggressive behaviors (Meints et al., 2010; Lakestani et al., 2014). Those individuals with prior experience with dog behavior and training are typically much better at reading dog emotions through body language cues (Kujala et al., 2012; Wan et al., 2012). This makes sense, as many emotions are expressed through subtle cues and require knowledge of what to look for. Facial expressions in dogs, on the other hand, are much more intuitive for humans to interpret. Humans, as a species, typically gain information about other’s emotions through facial expressions. We therefore are drawn more to our dog’s facial expressions and are better at interpreting their emotions through facial cues, irrespective of our formal training in dog behavior (Bloom and Friedman, 2013; Schirmer et al., 2013). Bloom and Friedman (2013) explored how well humans were able to distinguish certain emotions in photographs of dog’s faces. They found that humans were best at distinguishing basic emotions, but struggled to detect more discrete, complex emotions. The following are percentages of times people were able to correctly identify the following emotions:
- Happiness: 88%
- Anger/aggressiveness: 70%
- Fear: 45%
- Sadness: 37%
- Surprise: 20%
- Disgust: 13%
In summary, dogs and humans have many brain regions and hormones in common. These shared physiological traits have led scientists to believe that dogs are capable of experiencing many of the same emotions that humans do. It is fairly clear that dogs are able to experience basic emotions, especially those that are advantageous for the survival of their species. These are the same emotions that human infants develop before 2 years of age. Whether or not dogs can experience more complex emotions is still up for debate.
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