Do the animals have feelings? Can dogs sense people’s emotions?
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.
The mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two 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.
The complex social emotions 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.
Can dogs feel guilty for their mistakes?
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?
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.
Do dogs feel love? Do dogs feel sad?
Your dog can indisputably feel love for you (as much as a 2-year-old), derive contentment from your company and has a limited capacity to feel sad when you are away. Generally, they will always be content as long as they are in a comfortable environment, well fed, well rested and entertained.