‘Feelings, nothing more than feelings’

Do dogs have feelings and memory? Do they know when their owners are sad or happy?

Any dog owner will say ‘of course dogs have feelings’ and then mention a time(s) when their dog showed an incredible range of emotions. Dogs certainly bring out feelings in people, such as love, protection and play. But how do we understand what a dog might be truly feeling? And how can we ensure our dogs are happy and emotionally balanced?

Many experts say dogs are mentally equal to a two-year-old child. But dogs have at least 10,000 years of human interaction to draw on and so they’ve learned to read human emotions very well. Dogs share similar brain functionality with us, as well as the hormone oxytocin, which is linked with feelings of love and affection for others. (One difference is the dog’s incredible sense of smell, which takes up a large portion of its brain. Dogs associate scent with memories, which is why they can be trained to sniff for bombs and drugs and people and food.)

Recent research studies prove dogs are capable of feelings that are more complex than we may realize. Dogs may not be able to ponder the ‘meaning of life’ but their emotions are pure, and they do pick up on their owners’ emotional states.

Here are a few examples:

Empathy: A 2012 study published in Animal Cognition exposed 18 dogs of varying ages and breeds to an owner or a stranger who was 1) humming, 2) speaking in a casual manner and 3) pretending to cry. Each dog was exposed to the three scenarios for 20 seconds. None of the dogs responded to the humans talking and only a few dogs responded to the humming. However, most of the dogs went to and touched the human pretending to cry; it didn’t matter if it was the owner or a stranger. In each case the dogs approached the human in a submissive way, which indicated empathy.

Joy: Another interesting study, at Sierra Nevada College, looked at the ability of dogs to laugh. Apparently dogs do laugh; it sounds somewhat like a pant to the human ear. After hearing a recording of the “laughing sound” the study found that other dogs would start to play and it would calm shelter dogs under stress. And an experiment with 15 puppies found they romped for joy when they heard the recorded canine laugh.

Grief: Much anecdotal research has shown that dogs experience sadness when a pack member passes away. They may exhibit symptoms of distress such as loss of appetite, fear, depression and anxiety. If your dog is grieving, make sure you provide him/ her with lots of attention, affection and activity.

Fairness: Dogs have a sense of fairness and can be upset if they are not being treated equally with others. A University of Vienna study looked at 43 dogs that had been trained to shake a paw. All of the dogs performed well until they noticed some dogs were being rewarded with treats for the same behaviour. The dogs who did not receive a treat started performing much worse, obeying only 13 out of 32 times, and they exhibited stress behaviour such as licking or scratching themselves.

According to experts, dogs are NOT capable of feeling guilt, pride, or shame. Apparently, the guilty look your dog gives you when it has done something wrong is based more on your reaction than the fact it feels guilty. And don’t worry about putting silly antler headgear on your dog at Christmas; the dog may not like it but it won’t be traumatized with ‘shame.’

The more we know about how our dogs feel the better we can meet their needs. It goes without saying that when a dog’s needs are met (for exercise, discipline and affection), they will return our affection many times over.

Further reading:
1. For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, by Patricia McConnell;
2. The Intelligence of Dogs: A Guide to the Thoughts, Emotions and Inner Lives of Our Canine Companions, by Stanley Coren;
3. What it’s Like to be A Dog: And Other Adventures in Neuroscience, by Gregory Berns.

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