Understanding dog emotions

Do our dogs have similar feelings to us? And do dogs love their owners? We get the facts about canine emotions from behaviourist Nick Jones.

As dog owners, we can tell if our dog is feeling excited, relaxed or anxious. But are dogs’ emotions as complex as our own? The answer is complicated, because while we’ve learned a lot about canine emotions, there’s also a lot we don’t know. However, scientists have found that dogs experience at least some of the same emotions as humans.

What emotions do dogs feel?

So far, research has found that dogs experience a range of basic, or fundamental, emotions including:

  • Joy
  • Sadness
  • Surprise
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Disgust

Whether dogs are capable of feeling more complex, or secondary, emotions is still up for debate. These include:

  • Regret
  • Grief
  • Jealousy
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Disappointment

Dogs have the same neurotransmitters that regulate emotions as humans. But while they may feel some of the same basic emotions, they probably perceive them differently. That’s because their cerebral cortex, where emotions are processed, is much smaller than that of humans. Dogs also live in the moment, and this can affect their emotions and outlook on life.

Do dogs love their owners?

It goes without saying that we love our dogs – but do dogs feel love in the same way that we do? This does seem likely, as research shows that levels of oxytocin and dopamine, or ‘feel-good’ hormones, increase in both humans and dogs when we play together. At the same time, their blood pressure decreases.

Research also found that brain activity in dogs who have a clear bond with their owners is similar to that seen in humans. So, it’s pretty clear that when it comes to unconditional love with our dogs, the emotion goes both ways.

Can dogs pick up on human emotions?

Dogs are pack animals, so being able to stay in tune with their pack mates’ emotional states is an important survival skill in the wild. If one dog is alerted by something they’ve seen, heard or smelled, then other dogs within the same pack will pick up on this. Years of living and working alongside humans means that dogs are capable of forming a similarly strong bond with their owners. In fact, research suggests that the bonds we form with our dogs are similar to those formed between parents and their children.

So, if you’ve ever felt like your dog can pick up on your emotions, you’re probably right. Research has found that dogs read our facial expressions, use auditory clues and pick up on our body language to decipher how we’re feeling.

As our relationship with dogs evolves and more research is carried out, it’s likely that we’ll discover even more about our dogs’ emotions. For example, some studies have found that dogs can feel jealousy – traditionally thought to be a complex emotion specific to humans. 

Dog emotions: a dog’s-eye view

Even though dogs seem to be pretty adept at knowing how we’re feeling, dog owners need to be careful not to project human emotions onto our dogs – a habit known as anthropomorphism. This ultimately leads to assumptions about how our dogs may be feeling, and it can mean we engage with our dogs in a way that’s not appropriate for that moment.

For example, if we come home and find out our dog has raided the bin and made a mess, we might assume from their expression that they're feeling guilty or embarrassed. But what we see as embarrassment are more likely to be appeasement signals from our dog, based on them recognising our displeased tone of voice, body language and mood. These signs of anxiety can include turning the head to the side, yawning or licking the nose.

Rather than assume your dog is feeling something they’re not, it’s better to become familiar with their body language and behaviour. This can give us a better idea of what they’re feeling. It’s also important to consider the intelligence and emotional quotient of each individual dog, as just like us, they’ll respond differently to the same situation.

How dog emotions drive behaviour

While owner anecdotes often raise the possibility that dogs can experience a more complex range of emotions than we once thought, more research is needed before we can claim this for sure. In the meantime, knowing that emotions drive your dog’s behaviour can help us become more attuned with what they may be feeling. Do dogs feel guilty or embarrassed? It’s unlikely. Do dogs love their owners? Absolutely! And our dogs are almost certainly capable of a wider variety of feelings than they were previously credited with.

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