What emotions do dogs feel?

Most people would agree that dogs, (as well as many other species of animal) do indeed have feelings.  But to what extent do dogs feel emotion and how?  Emotion in animals is still a matter of scientific controversy, even though we may feel it is easy to tell when our dog is happy, or sad, or angry.  Holidays4Dogs looks into this interesting topic.

The UK Government has stated that animals should be regarded as sentient beings.  However, the word ‘sentient’ only describes that the animal is awake, attentive and responsive, but does not really suggest that an animal is capable of emotion; at least not in the human sense.  However, this does mean that animals should not widely be regarded as commodities, but should be subject to the highest possible standards of welfare.

As far back as the 1600’s, dogs (or any animal) were not thought of as creatures that were capable of having emotions and this was the basis of broad scientific thought at the time.  However, religion was very much entangled in this concept, since religious schools and universities often funded scientific research and when it came to studies into whether animals might have a consciousness or soul, the church frowned upon this idea.

The most pivotal person to promote the idea that dogs were simply machines was Rene Descartes.  He claimed that these dog shaped machines were incapable of thinking and could only be programmed to perform certain functions.  It became widely accepted that animals, therefore, were not capable of feeling; only acting.

Thankfully, science has moved on and progressed immensely since then; going way beyond the scientific thoughts of Descartes.  We now know that dogs have a similar chemical and neurological make up as humans and thus, it stands to reason that their emotional states might be similar too.  What we must not do, however, is believe that dogs have exactly the same emotional responses that we have, because we are learning that this is probably not the case. To follow this line of thought could actually be detrimental to dogs as a species; while they are most certainly not machines in fur coats; neither should they be regarded as humans in fur coats.

Scientists involved in animal behaviour, (including humans) have come to the conclusion that dogs have roughly the same emotional and mental age equivalent to a two year old human child.  Dogs, however, develop much more quickly than human children, so by the time they are around six months old a puppy will generally have developed the full range of his emotions – joy, fear, anger and love. However, it is not thought that dogs are ever capable of feeling more complex emotions such as shame, embarrassment or guilt.

Guilt, in particular, is an emotion that is often misunderstood when it comes to our pet dogs.  It is often hard for people to understand that our dogs don’t know the difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in human society.  If a dog has an accident in the house, owners assume that because of the way he behaves – cowering, running away, or hanging his head, the dog is feeling guilty.  This simply isn’t the case though and a dog may act in a submissive way because he is anticipating admonishment that he has most likely received in the past.

Here’s a test for anyone who still doubts this.  Drop a tissue on the floor, tell the dog he is naughty and point to the tissue – “oh what have you done Fido, look at this mess” (you do not need to be overly aggressive and do not touch your dog in the process).  You will see that your dog might start to look ‘guilty’ but he is in fact reacting to your tone of voice and is worried about you hurting him.  Dogs are very good at understanding humans, but unfortunately the reverse is not always true.

While dogs cannot understand complex issues or abstract notions, they are capable of feeling happy, sad, over-joyed and fearful, as well as having a great love and loyal bond with the humans around them.  So, yes dogs can and do feel different emotions which make them the unique and vibrant creatures that people love the world over.