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Behaviourist's Corner

Understanding Dog's Emotions


Your dog's wagging tail or warning barks are more than enough proof that he experiences a range of emotions, but are they as complex as our own? To help answer that question, and how it could give you insight into your pet's behaviour, we looked at the latest research and asked animal behaviourist Danielle Beck for her expert opinion.


The same but different

In recent years, scientists and behaviourists have become convinced of something that almost all dog owners already knew: that dogs experience the same kinds of emotions as humans.

'Dogs have the same neurotransmitters that regulate emotions as us,' explains Danielle. 'They certainly feel joy, pleasure and fear but they perceive them differently. This is because the cerebral cortex, where emotions are processed, is huge in the human brain. A dog's brain is much smaller so the processing is likely to be simpler.'

Psychologist Stanley Coren agrees: he believes that dogs definitely have the basic emotions that Danielle describes, but probably not emotions such as guilt, pride or shame – despite what many owners think! Dogs also develop faster than humans do, so their full emotional range is complete by around four to six months of age. And where humans overthink things, dogs live in the moment and simply feel.

Evolution and emotion

Historically, our dogs' ancestors lived in sociable family units that were essential to the pack's survival. 'Staying in tune with other dogs' emotional states kept them safe,' says Danielle. 'If one dog is scared, other dogs will be more alert.' But what is interesting is that years of living and working with humans have given dogs an increasingly acute understanding of human emotions, and they now show much stronger attachments to humans than to other dogs.

In fact, a study in South Africa, published in Veterinary Journal, found that when dogs played with humans, their blood pressure dropped slightly and their levels of 'feel-good' chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine soared. 'This lies at the root of the "unconditional love" that many owners describe and treasure in their dogs,' says anthrozoologist Dr John Bradshaw in his book, In Defence of Dogs.

A dog's eye view

Research by scientists at the University of Lincoln in 2016 proved that dogs can also identify positive and negative emotional states in humans and other dogs, rather than simply displaying learned behaviours. When dogs were shown photos of humans and other dogs in varying emotional states, accompanied by a range of different sounds, the dogs spent significantly longer looking at photos where the facial expressions correctly matched the vocal sounds.

So, research proves that our dogs understand us, but are we getting better at reading them? 'Yes,' says Danielle, although she does think that at times we may inadvertently over-analyse their responses. 'People often attribute human-style emotions to dogs' actions,' she says. 'They ask themselves why they would behave like that, but a dog doesn't think in quite the same way.

'For example, jealousy in dogs is usually a fear-based emotion. If a dog feels jealous, he's not being malicious, he probably just fears something being taken away.'

Guilt is another emotion that we often attribute to our dogs but, again, Danielle thinks this might be a projection of our own emotions. 'Your dog will pick up on your body language and may feel anxious about your reaction, perhaps because he's chewed something he shouldn't, rather than feeling guilty about the action itself,' she says.

Make training more emotionally rewarding

As you've no doubt experienced with your own pet, emotions drive dogs' behaviour. So, with that in mind, Danielle recommends watching your dog's body language closely before you engage in any behavioural training.

'A happy dog has loose skin, relaxed muscles, and a floppy tail, and there's no white showing in his eyes,' she explains. 'If you notice that your dog is in a low mood, don't attempt any training. And if your dog appears to be fearful or anxious, take him away from that situation and change the activity to one that you know he enjoys instead. Then always end on something you're sure your dog can do well, so that you can reward him and finish the session on a positive note.'


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