Do Dogs Have Emotions? What Science Says Your Pup Feels
Most pet parents take for granted that their dogs have feelings, but is it a scientific fact? Do dogs have emotions like us? For a long time, scientists have debated the topic. They've run tests to see whether canines have a rich inner life or if we're just projecting our own feelings on our four-legged friends. While we will probably never completely understand the complexity of dog emotions, here's what we've learned so far.
What We Know About Dog Emotions
It's easy to see that your dog gets excited or happy when good things are about to happen: You come home, dinner is served, or you pull out their favorite ball to play fetch. Your pup's tail is wagging, he's jumping up and down or running in circles, or giving you an eager, throw-it-already look.
But the truth is that people, even veterinarians, are poor at recognizing the nuances of canine communication, says Lisa Radosta, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service. "They do vocalize, but dogs primarily communicate through body language."
People are most attuned to reading facial expressions. The good news is that the faces of dogs can be quite communicative, according to a study published in the journal Animals. Unlike wolves, dogs have a range of facial expressions. Most of the time, people can pick up on a dog's basic mental state, like happiness or reactivity. But people often struggle to recognize subtler cues that may relate to canine fear, sadness, surprise, or disgust, found a study published in the journal Behavioural Processes.
So the question becomes: Are we interpreting dog behavior through our own social-emotional lens? For instance, many pet parents believe their pups feel guilty about doing something naughty, like tearing up the couch or pooping in the house. But that's not so, according to one small study published in Behavioural Processes. Dogs respond with the same behavior whenever their person scolds them, regardless of whether they actually broke the rules. That means, your pooch's "guilty look" is in response to your upset—he feels bad because you're angry, not because of what he did.
Do Dogs Have Emotions Like Humans?
Current scientific theory confirms what pet parents already know: Dogs have feelings just like people do. During brain scans, the areas of the brain that light up when people have emotions also show increased activity in dogs going through similar situations.
Additionally, the chemicals that make us feel stressed or relaxed are the same. Multiple studies show that when people pet dogs, it reduces cortisol (the stress hormone) and boosts oxytocin and dopamine (feel-good hormones) in both parties. From this, we can assume that dogs experience emotions as we do, especially all the feels you get during a good snuggle session.
What Emotions Do Dogs Experience?
Research indicates that dogs have a limited range of emotions, similar to what toddlers experience. Canines lack complex feelings such as contempt, guilt, pride, and shame, says Stanley Coren, PhD, psychologist and author of How Dogs Think.
Like children, dogs see the world in a simpler way. "They don't care what you wear, how attractive you are, what you do for work, or how much money you have in the bank," Mikkel Becker, dog trainer and co-author of From Fearful to Fear Free, says. "So people feel free to be themselves without fear of being shunned or judged for doing so."
Dogs are really good at picking up on people's emotions and often adopt the same demeanor. It's called emotional contagion. But dogs also experience their own feelings in response to things that happen. Becker says that dogs may feel:
Until canines start talking (and some would argue that they do—have you been around a husky?), it's impossible to truly know how our pets process the world. But what we can all agree on is that dogs are incredibly good at boosting our spirits. "In recent years, science has started to catch up to what we pet parents have known all along," Becker says. "Our dogs feel deeply, care deeply, and love deeply."