How Do Dogs Think and Feel – And Do They Reason? - Simply For Dogs
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How Do Dogs Think and Feel – And Do They Reason?

Any dog person knows the aggravation of hearing some insufferable know-nothing claim that dogs don’t think, are incapable of reason, and don’t really have feelings the way humans do. We know different, but you can’t convince non-dog people that they’re wrong. I don’t know why those people are like that – maybe they have really low self-esteem, and have to convince themselves that at least they’re brighter than the average dog in order to feel good about themselves. I’ve pretty much stopped trying to explain to them all the evidence that suggests that dogs do think, do reason, and feel all the same emotions that we do. I generally just tell them that they’re so full of it I’m surprised it’s not dripping out their ears and falling all over their shoes.

A Story

You know how I love to tell you stories! This one is about Janice and Leroy (as many of them are), and how I would know right now, beyond all doubt, that at least one of my two has a very fine mind and is fully capable of emotion.

This happened during a lovely day in mid-July. The birds were singing, and the scent of flowers was wafting in from my garden, so I threw open every door and window in my house, including the one leading to the balcony.

Now, I have to tell you that Leroy is the sort of dog that barks when a leaf falls. So, at one point, he went out onto the balcony and started barking. I don’t know what set him off, but the incessant barking was pretty annoying. Apparently it was bothering Janice, too – she’d go out onto the balcony and snap at him, but he still wouldn’t shut up. I could almost see the wheels turning in that fine mind of hers – she came back into the house, ran into the next room, and started barking a lung up. Leroy ran over to see what she was barking about, and then she rushed over to the balcony door and used her nose to slam it shut!

So, emotions, yes – she was annoyed by Leroy’s barking. Reasoning, yes – she recognized a problem, and figured out a way to solve it, by luring Leroy back into the house. And again, emotions – I could just see the satisfaction on her face once Leroy stopped barking.

So, they don’t think, reason or feel? As if.

I got thinking more about how our dogs think and feel. And I realized that even without any solid proof, anyone with a working brain knows that dogs do think, and they do feel, and they do reason. You probably see the evidence any time you come home after being gone for a while. Your dog bounces around happily and wags his tail, and you think, “He’s glad I’m home!” Or maybe you take your dog for a walk, and you encounter another dog, and yours raises his hackles and starts to growl. This behavior didn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s not happening for no reason – your dog is saying that he thinks that he doesn’t like this other dog, and that its presence makes him feel angry. And he reasons that if he shows his displeasure, the other dog will probably go away (best case scenario) or engage him in a fight (worst case scenario).

So, with all the evidence to suggest that dogs do feel, think and reason, do some people still insist that they don’t?

Blame Science and Religion

In the distant past, most people assumed that dogs did feel and think in much the same way as humans do. You can probably blame the shift in attitude in large part to conventional religion and the concept of the soul. I touched on this in Do Dogs Go to Heaven? The late Pope John Paul II pretty much revolutionized the Roman Catholic way of thinking about souls when he stated unequivocally that dogs do have souls, and they most definitely go to Heaven. More recently, Pope Francis stated that the souls of animals are no less precious to God than the souls of mankind.

However, further back, the advent of scientific thinking led many people to believe that dogs were not much more than machines – and aided by religious thought, concluded that humans were somehow more than mere machines, by virtue of having souls. Theologians insisted that humans were capable of conscious thought and emotions. Animals, they suggested, did not have souls, and therefore could not experience feelings in the way that humans do.

René Descartes, the French philosopher and scientist, was the first to promote this ideology. He believed that dogs were just a system of various parts, with no higher mind, that could be trained to react in certain ways. Later, Nicholas de Malebranche stated this theory as meaning that dogs “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, act without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.” I wish I had a time machine so I could go back to his era and tell him, “René, you’re clueless.”

Now, also take this belief system in another context. At the time, a lot of the scientific research was conducted by schools and universities that were heavily supported by – you guessed it – organized religion. So, if the institute of learning didn’t support the church’s position, they could lose the church’s support.

I don’t even know how you could really argue against this kind of mindset. I guess you could point out the example I used above, about the dog who challenged another dog while on a walk. I suppose the argument you’d get back would be that the dog is not acting out of fear or dislike, but just because it’s somehow “programmed” to react that way. That doesn’t make much sense to me – why is the dog programmed that way? I’d say it’s because the dog’s brain is programmed to act on emotions like fear or anger. But I imagine the response would just be a circular argument that dog’s don’t “feel,” they just act. Which to my way of thinking, is utter nonsense.

Modern Thought

We’ve come a long way since Descartes. Most animal behaviorists, veterinarians, and even lay people now believe that dogs think and feel the same way that humans do. Their brain structures are essentially the same, and subject to the same kinds of chemical changes when faced with certain situations. In fact, modern researchers have discovered that the brain of a dog will produce oxytocin – the same “feel good” hormone that a human’s brain produces when they are feeling happiness, love, contentment, and other emotions that were once thought to be exclusively human.

But does that mean that dogs feel exactly the same types of emotions, and in exactly the same way, as humans? Not necessarily.

When You Were a Kid…

Think back to when you were very young. Probably the way you felt and expressed emotions were very different than the way you feel and express them now. You were, for instance, probably far more easily frustrated back then. A lost toy could leave you crying for hours. Not getting what you expected for dinner might produce a tantrum. As you got older, your emotions became more focused, and more controllable. Now, if you lose something, you think, “No biggie, I’ll find it later.” Or you think “I really would have liked to have fried chicken for dinner, but I guess it’s okay that I’m having a beef stir-fry tonight. Maybe chicken tomorrow.” You’re capable of more range, more scope, and more long-term reasoning than you were back then.

Scientists now believe that a dog operates on about the same level of a 2-3 year old child. So, to understand what your dog is really thinking and feeling, you have to look at what a human of that age experiences emotionally and cognitively. A young child has all the emotions that an adult has, but not to the same range. It’s only as they grow up that a child’s emotions begin to broaden, and only when that child reaches adulthood that they have fully developed emotions.

This research that has led to comparing a dog’s mind to that of a toddler is significant because it lends credence to the idea that dogs almost certainly do have the same emotions as humans, but that they do not experience them to the same depth as adult humans.

The Development of Emotion

Do you remember being born? I’m thinking you probably don’t. When you’re first born, everything is new to you, and pretty much everything is measured only in terms of what you feel immediately post-birth. At that stage of your life, all you feel is a sense of calmness or a sense of frenzy, with little in between – it’s “Feed me, feed me now!” and then it’s “Okay, I’m fed, it’s all good.” Over the next few months, a human will develop other emotions, like fear or anger. “I’m afraid because I haven’t been fed, and I’m worried that I’ll never be fed again, and that makes me mad!” The emotion of happiness usually doesn’t appear until about six months. And then, a child develops suspicion – this usually manifests as a fear of strangers, or anyone who is “not Mom.”

No one really knows when a child begins to feel love, but most researchers estimate that it will not happen until the child is at least nine months old. Even then, behaviors that might suggest love could be misconstrued – it might not really be love for the parent, but just happiness at having been regularly fed.

Now, all you parents out there, you need to know that by the time a child is four, he will have developed the ability to feel contempt. Something to look forward to, right?

Get ‘Er Done

Dogs, according to the conventional wisdom, will go through the same stages of emotional development as humans, but they will do it much faster. Depending on the breed, a dog will be fully emotionally developed by the age of four to six months. Conventional wisdom also holds that a dog will never pass the level of emotional development of a child of two and a half years. So, he’s going to have all those emotions – love, happiness, fear, anger, and yes, contempt – but will never go beyond that to develop the same level and range of emotions as an adult human. He will not feel shame, guilt, or pride, for instance.

As a footnote, the development of “contempt” as an emotion occurs when the dog has reached what would, in a human, be the mid-to-late teens (between five and six months for the dog). This is the point where your dog may begin to challenge you, deciding that perhaps he would make a better pack leader than you.

What, Not Guilt?

Okay, time for another story. On a cool fall day I decided to make a pot of turkey soup. I use my grandmother’s recipe – no bouillon cubes or canned stock for me. I start with a turkey carcass, which I place in a large pot along with a celery stick, a couple of carrots, some garlic, a cut-up onion, and a bay leaf. Then I simmer the stock for a few hours and let it cool on the stove. I put it in the fridge so the fat can rise to the top, and then I skim off the fat and boiled ingredients, and add in all kinds of fresh veggies along with the meat.

So, I finished the stock, and left it to cool while I went out to do some errands. When I got back, there was stock all over the floor, and Leroy had the turkey carcass in his mouth. He rushed gleefully toward me, with an expression that clearly said “Look, I found you a turkey carcass!”

Did he feel guilty? No, I don’t think so. He knew he’d done wrong, and he was trying to salvage the situation by attempting to convince me that all along, his only goal was to get that turkey carcass to give to me. He knew I’d be ticked off, and he was trying to find a way to pull his big brindle but out of the fire. But guilt? No.

I don’t believe that dogs feel guilt. Leroy wasn’t reacting that way because he felt guilty; it was because he was afraid he’d be punished. It was simple self-preservation; not anything as complex as guilt.


So, do dogs think and reason? You only have to look at my story of Janice and Leroy and the open balcony door to know that they indisputably do. Do they feel? Of course they do. I know every day that Janice and Leroy love me, and I don’t need any kind of scientific research to prove that they do.

Think about it – why would we even keep companion animals that didn’t love us? If we doubted their love, why would we want them? You could argue the “thinking and reasoning” thing until the cows come home, and I still think that if you’re halfway sensible, you’ll come to the conclusion that dogs do think and reason. As to emotions, love especially, though? That’s beyond question. They do love, and the love of a good dog is the best love you’ll ever have.