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Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?

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Do Dogs Have Feelings? The feelings dogs actually experience— and those we project

Do dogs have feelings? Most people can read emotions in their dog quite easily. For example, you come home and your dog dances around wagging her tail, and you think to yourself, “Lady is happy to see me,” or “Lady really loves me.” Or perhaps you’re out on a walk and, at the approach of another canine, your dog freezes in place, his hackles raised, and gives a low throaty growl. We interpret this as “Rex does not like that dog. Seeing him makes Rex angry.” In such situations the emotional state of our dogs seems quite obvious. For this reason it is difficult for many people to understand that the existence of emotions in dogs was—and in some places still is—a point of scientific controversy.

The History of Dog Emotions: Soul or Machine?

In the dim, distant past it was presumed that dogs had very rich mental lives, with feelings much like those of humans and even the ability to understand human language almost as well as people. However, with the rise of science things began to change. Mankind was now beginning to understand enough about the principles of physics and mechanics that we could build complex machines. In addition, we were learning that living things were also governed by systems that followed mechanical rules and chemical processes. 

In the face of such discoveries, religions stepped in to suggest that there must be more to human beings than simply mechanical and chemical events. Church scholars insisted that people have souls, and the evidence they gave for this was the fact that humans have consciousness and feelings; animals might have the same mechanical systems, they argued, but they did not have a divine spark and, therefore, did not have the ability to experience “true” feelings.

Studies of Dog Feelings in the Past

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Dog development schedule and levels of dog emotion

The most prominent person to adopt this line was the French philosopher and scientist René Descartes. In a highly influential set of analyses, Descartes suggested that animals like dogs were simply some kind of machine. He would thus describe my Beagle, Darby, as simply being a dog-shaped chassis, filled with the biological equivalent of gears and pulleys.

This machine doesn’t think, but it can be programmed to do certain things. Nicholas de Malebranche, who extended Descartes’ ideas, summed up the idea when he claimed that animals “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, act without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”

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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.

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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.

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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).

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Comments (14)

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I personally take anything Stan Coren has to say about dogs with a grain of salt -- or maybe a large salt block like the kind they use for cattle. Why? Had the experience of having him as one of the trainers at a local club, and he was pretty darn CLUELESS! I specifically disagree with him about a dog's inability to feel guilt. I had an incredibly smart and exceptionally good young dog who rarely got even scolded and had never been punished. He had never been scolded for "accidents" in the house, as he literally only had a couple when he was a tiny baby and then he was 100% housebroken. Still, I came home one day and he looked "guilty". I had never seen him exhibit this behavior, so I asked him, "Did you do something? What did you do?" He quite literally led me into the dining room, where I discovered that he had pulled my brother's 'little black book' off the table and made confetti out of it -- we're talking a million specks of paper all over the room! He stared at it, then stared at the floor, glanced at me, then glanced at the floor again looking very contrite and absolutely guilty. His "punishment" consisted of me picking up a handful of paper bits and telling him that "This was NOT a good thing." He couldn't have felt worse than he already did, so there was no point in doing anything more. Plus, this misbehavior was so terribly out of character and -- quite frankly -- so amusing to me, that I was having trouble mustering anything other than laughter. Even after I told him, "It's okay now, you're forgiven," he didn't really perk up for a while. Fear of punishment? I don't think so!
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:22
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Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:47
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What about the dog's ability to empathize or feel sympathy? Stanley Coren doesn't mention that emotion. I once had a dog that would cry tears whenever I was crying about something. Her eyes weren't running from allergy or anything like that. She was crying real tears of sympathy that ran down her face just like mine did. I think that it is common for the scientific community, and humans in general, to minimize the feelings of animals and their capability of expressing emotions similar to ours. I am sure that makes it easier for some humans to do the terrible things they do to animals. Here's a question to consider: If over time dogs have adapted to our grain-based diet and no longer eat the diet of their wolf ancestors, then why couldn't they also be able to adopt our emotions? This amazing species remains grossly underestimated by the two-legged species they are most closely associated with. Both are still evolving.
Thu, 01/24/2013 - 14:24
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Thu, 01/24/2013 - 17:17
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I very much looked forward to reading this essay, hoping for insights into the canine emotional system, but I found it to simplistic and extremely limited in its thinking. Even someone with limited observational experience of dogs could provide a more richly nuanced portrait of their emotional capacities. For example: when my grandmother was dying, our dog (who had never been allowed on the bed) kept vigil for three days, curled at the foot of the bed. He was quiet and attentive, a calming presence in the room. I have no idea what he was thinking or feeling, but he knew (before anyone else accepted it) that she was dying, and he stayed by her side until she was gone. He then moved to be with my grandfather, licking his hand and keeping him company. I do not think a human toddler would have had the emotional depth or capacity to know to do any of that. I cannot fathom what was going through our dog's mind, but I do know that he performed a service for which our family was -- is -- profoundly grateful; he wordlessly, lovingly did something that none of us humans was quite able to do in that moment. I think that Mr. Coren really misses out on the range of dog's behavior and emotional depth by trying to fit it into too neat a human developmental model. Try again....
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This is a very poorly thought article that sorely misunderstands recent science about dogs, emotions and language. It's disappointing to see how far nonsense can spread, and then receive accolades. In philosophy, my field, one must factor in epistemology, that is, the limits of human knowledge, including what is known, yet unknown and the unknowable. Coren crosses these boundaries willy-nilly, making a mockery of human reason and the science of dogs alike. The section about Descartes treats a mere myth as if fact. This reductive account of Descartes’ position is often perpetuated by people who have not read his works. Dogs show evidence of feeling shame, pride and other emotions no more or less than love. While there is no way to prove this in dogs, there is equally no way to prove it in human beings -- save by taking their words -- and in this case people may lie. In short, accurate and definitive measures of intelligence and emotions in the sciences do not exist, and so to claim knowledge about either is stretching the truth, at best.
Sun, 02/03/2013 - 10:49
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Thu, 04/04/2013 - 18:31
Dogs are complex beings. Intelligence is simply one representation of complexity, but true complexity can only come from emotion and experience. Intelligence is a form of complexity, but in essence, it is simply a language - a language which can describe, manipulate and alter the circumstances around them. However, if you look at emotion itself, it is beyond any verbal or non verbal explanation. The smartest human entities can spend life-times trying to explain emotion, but they will always fail to do so using any form of intellect. Emotion must be felt and experienced in order to be understood. Dogs cannot describe the most complicated experience of man and yet they too share the experience of emotion. They are not separated from emotion through thought or through the act of analysation. Does cannot analyze emotion in the same capacity of humans due to their limited intellectual capacities, and therefore, they, being the "lesser" beings are more connected to their emotional lives than most humans can truly say they are. I've witnessed so many emotions being displayed across my dogs' faces and i can say with certainty, that dogs share this earth with humans from a more soulful perspective than any other species. Dogs are and will never be pets. If you invite a dog into your home, do so knowing that you are officially inviting a new member into your family.
Thu, 09/05/2013 - 21:02
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Descartes was a horrible little man who thought all animals were emotionless machines. Don't believe me? Do some research. He - without guilt - tortured countless sentient creatures in the name of "science". I would no more trust him to guide me in the discovery of emotion than I would have Jeffrey Dahmer guide me in vegetarian cuisine.
Thu, 12/16/2021 - 19:44

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