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Have you ever wondered if your dog really loves you? Or if they really do think it’s funny to play keep-away with something you need? I know that I’ve often seen Janice and Leroy showing signs of empathy for each other. When one is sick or injured, the other will be extra attentive. Is that a sign of actually feeling an emotion, or just a natural reaction to something new going on?
Last update on 2018-11-18 at 14:15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
These are questions that a lot of dog owners have asked before. We love our pets so much, and we want to know if we are really making them happy. And when you hear about studies that prove that dogs don’t actually feel guilt when they get in trouble (guilt just isn’t a concept they understand…that “guilty” face is simply a learned reaction to your behavior), it makes you wonder if dogs can feel any sort of emotion at all. Here are nine emotions that dogs really do feel, according to science:
How do we know that dogs actually do feel these things? I’ve been doing some research, and have rounded up information on all the latest canine behavior studies to prove it.
It was 2013 when the New York Times revealed that M.R.I. scans of dogs’ brains showed that dogs definitely do feel love. When a dog was informed that he would be getting some food, the part of the brain that controls enjoyment lit up. When the dog smelled something belonging to their favorite person, or when that person came into the room, the same part of the brain lit up. Scientists said that this part of the canine brain is extremely similar to the part of the brain that we associate with love, so yes – dogs do actually love you. Go ahead and spoil your dog with all the new toys or yummy treats, because they do appreciate you for it.
In 2011, an experiment was performed to see if dogs can understand the concept of generosity. The idea is that if they understand this concept, then they could be showing gratitude when they are treated generously. Feeling grateful is definitely an emotion, after all. So in the study, a dog would be introduced to two strangers who held some good food. Another human would then come in and beg for food, being rejected by one person, and being given food by the second person. After this scene played out, the dog would be unleashed. Over and over again, the dog would choose the “nicer” person who shared their food – even when that person had no more food to share with them. Perhaps it’s just the hope that they’ll also get some food, but scientists said that this behavior shows a sense of gratitude.
Here’s something most dog owners could tell you without a fancy study. In 2012, a study showed that if dogs are around their owner who is acting calm, and a stranger who is crying, the dog will actually leave the owner’s side and approach the crying person in an attempt to comfort them. I’ve had many dogs who have been especially comforting to me when they can sense I’ve had a bad day, so this doesn’t surprise me. The fact that dogs would leave their owner – their own “safe zone” and provider of food – to comfort strangers, shows that they are actually feeling real empathy, and aren’t just ensuring that their meal ticket is okay. Give a dog in your life something special to thank him for being your shoulder to cry on.
Dogs consider a lot of things “resources”. Food is one. Shelter is one. Toys can be resources. Your attention and praise are others. When they feel as though they aren’t being given a fair amount of the resources, they do start to get jealous. How do we know? A study in 2008 showed that when some dogs were rewarded more handsomely for performing the same trick as other dogs, the dogs that didn’t get the special rewards would start to obey less frequently. They also started showing signs of stress – essentially, they were throwing a fit, doggy style. They were saying “This isn’t fair, and I won’t do what you say until it is!”
Do you have a prankster dog that likes to do silly things for your attention? Believe it or not, dogs do have a sense of humor, and can laugh. A dog’s laugh is kind of a silent pant of air, but science has shown that this is actually the same thing as a human laugh – an expression of amusement. How do we know that this sound means amusement and fun? A researcher played a recording of this sound for some dogs, and each time she played this sound, dogs would try to play with her, offering her toys and bouncing around. They heard the “amusement” sound, and immediately associated it with play and fun. The same dogs reacted fearfully to recordings of growls, for example.
I could go on and on about the many studies that have proven that dogs feel things. But one big question that a lot of people have is why? We assume that humans have feelings because humans are intelligent enough to do things like think in context, understand the movement of time, and so on. In a species that isn’t as intelligent as we are, how exactly do they feel things as complex as love?
Well, the reason is all about a specific part of the brain called the caudate nucleus. It’s a part of the brain that all mammals have, and it’s where our dopamine receptors are. (Dopamine is the “happy” chemical that your brain makes when you see someone you love, eat some tasty food, win an award, and so on.) This part of the brain is very active when you are in a state of anticipation – when something really important to you is about to happen, this part of the brain lights up. So, a bride before her wedding would have an extremely active caudate nucleus.
So, the fact that dogs even have this part of the brain suggests that they do have things that they anticipate. They have things they get excited about, or look forward to. It also suggests that they have things that are pleasing to them, that make them feel good, or that they really like.
And conversely, if a creature can like things, then it stands to reason that they can dislike things as well. From there, using studies like the ones I described above, scientists have been able to figure out exactly how deep a dog’s emotions really go. While they can feel the nine emotions I listed earlier:
…they can’t feel things such as:
Dogs just don’t develop these emotions, likely because they have to do with human concepts that don’t translate into the world of animals. Animals can feel love because the concept of having a mate or a family translates into the world of animals. Animals can experience humor because the concept of amusement (enjoying something just for the entertainment of it) can be translated into animal situations. However, the concept of shame indicates that animals would have to understand that there is something that they need to feel constant, long-term embarrassment over. Animals don’t really have that concept of time, so it just doesn’t translate.
Keep in mind that the dog brain is about the size of a lemon, so they don’t have as much room as we do to develop the sense of deeper and more complex emotions. Researchers have found that dogs’ intellectual ability is about that of a two-year-old child. So while a toddler doesn’t really understand why they should be “ashamed” of something, they do understand being angry. If you think of what a toddler can feel, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your dog can feel.
What is it that we can do with this information, exactly? As it turns out, understanding dogs’ emotional ability can help us do many things. This isn’t just something silly that dog lovers study for no reason – this is being put to good use all over the world.
First, it helps us become better pet owners. Once we realize that dogs really do feel love and affection, we re-prioritize how important it is to spend time with them every day. And once we know that dogs don’t really feel guilt, we can try new tactics to correct behavioral issues, because “scolding” doesn’t work. It also gives us an excuse to keep using that baby talk and spoiling our dogs, since we know they appreciate it as much as we do.
Second, it helps us understand how to better use dogs for things like therapy or service roles. When we understand how dogs can feel, we can find better ways to train and motivate them to perform certain tasks. In fact, trainers can use this information to better train all dogs, not just those in service roles.
Finally, it gives scientists some interesting facts to study about animals. One way that this data is being used is to try to understand why some animals are domesticated and others aren’t, or why some animals become extinct and others seem to be more hardy. There is some study into how the brain function, especially in the “feelings” department, may impact all of these things.
So yes, understanding our dogs’ emotions can be pretty important. It can make a dog’s daily life better, it can offer an important service to someone in need, and it can help scientists better understand the world and the other lifeforms in it.
If you have ever wondered why your dog feels closer to you than your human best friends, maybe this will help you understand. There are studies that show that caring for a dog releases the same type of hormones in the brain as caring for a human baby – so people who call their dogs “fur babies” may not be too far off the mark.
The relationship between humans and dogs is a long one, stretching back millennia, and that is something that has made both dogs and humans evolve to feel a close connection with each other, chemically speaking.
I can’t think of anyone who has a dog who would say that their dog doesn’t have feelings. It’s just too hard to be around these creatures and think them totally heartless, with the way they react to seeing you after a long day. They are pretty complex creatures with a lot more intelligence than we give them credit for sometimes. These studies go a long way towards reminding us of that.
Last update on 2018-11-18 at 14:15 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
If your dog is your best friend, like my Jakewas when I was growing up, or like Janice and Leroy are now, you definitely are not alone – and you’re not crazy. Science says that you aren’t, and no one’s going to doubt you when you quote these studies. There are many more out there proving that dogs feel the nine emotions described in this post. Check them out for yourself so you can be ready to back up your close bond with your dog.