Most pet parents at one time or another have wondered: do dogs have feelings? Fortunately or not, this is a question that can be answered with just a yes or no, but ultimately begs a more thorough explanation. Simply put, because humans and dogs are different, our understanding of emotions and feelings differ as well. So let's talk about it.
Anyone that has ever lived with a pet knows what a dog separation anxiety is – the look of sadness on his face when you leave the house without him and the joyful expression that he greets you with upon your return. Most pet owners would say that they are quite sure their dog expresses emotion, but do dogs have feelings?
If yes, are these feelings dogs experience the same as the ones that humans feel? It’s easy for us to translate dogs' feelings into emotional terms used by humans, but they are not always interchangeable. Humans have a wide range of emotions and we have many different terms for the same emotion.
For example, we use the terms “mad” and “angry” to define how we feel. We may also use terms “sad” and “upset.” Now, let's take one of them: think about the scale of “mad” emotions. If something is bothering you slightly, you may be a little irritated, but are really mad? When something genuinely upsets you, you will get mad. And what if something makes you extremely mad? We'd call that “being furious.”
So do dogs have feelings, and do they experience all these same emotions on the same scale that we do? Science has the answer.
Do Dogs Have Feelings and What Does Science Say?
Dog vs Person: Do dogs have feelings just as humans do?
While it is abundantly clear that dogs do have emotions, scientific research has proven that they aren’t as complex as the emotions that humans feel. There are different levels to feelings and emotions, and there's a difference between what humans and canines experience in terms of that.
Emotions of dogs are not as complex as those of humans. They are honest and pure emotions.
We, as humans, connect our thoughts to emotions. For example, your bad experiences from the past are linked to your emotions in the future, because you reflect on previous experiences when deciding on how you feel about something that is happening now.
Dogs do not have this ability. For this reason, their emotions are simple, pure, and honest. They're not as complex as the emotions of a human being and can be easily distinguished.
Dog experts believe that because dogs have no doubt or ulterior motives attached to their feelings, they are only able to feel basic emotions including love, joy, anger, fear, disgust, excitement, and distress.
The good news is, your Fido can in fact feel love for you and the other members of their family. The bad news is that he isn't able to feel or understand many of the emotions that you may project onto him.
When you hurt someone else's feelings or do something that will make another person upset, you feel guilty about it, or at least most of us do. Scientists believe that because canines cannot understand the effect that their actions have on others, they are unable to feel guilt and other emotions.
In humans, some of the more complex emotions including guilt, pride, and contempt are linked to thought and a deeper understanding of the feelings of others. Dogs do not have the ability to express these emotions.
Science on dogs experiencing feelings and emotions
Humans are self-aware and conscious, and that's why we've distanced ourselves so far away from other animals. Without empathy for others, we would be unable to express these emotions as well and would be more like dogs. However, some research has confirmed that certain emotions are felt by dogs, and can even be impacted by people.
One of the more known and recent studies have looked at what emotions dogs can express and how they “feel.” Here's what they have found:
“We know that people’s emotional states affect their judgements and that happy people are more likely to judge an ambiguous situation positively. What our study has shown is that this applies similarly to dogs – that a ‘glass-half-full’ dog is less likely to be anxious when left alone than one with a more ‘pessimistic’ nature.” – Prof. Mike Mendl
Many pet owners “disagree” with this research (obviously without any scientific merit to support their claims) because they believe that they have witnessed their dog feeling guilty after doing something naughty, or returning with a look of pride after they’ve done what they were told to do.
Humans love associating their own understanding of emotions with their dogs, but that doesn't mean that dogs experience those emotions.
However, no matter how much we'd like for this to be true, it simply isn't.
The answer is our own understanding of emotions and how we perceive the emotion from others. The only reason that we associate these more complex emotions with our dogs is because we assimilate the feelings that we would have if we were in a similar situation. Science has already proved this to be true.
Therefore, although you would feel a sense of pride after accomplishing something you’d been trained to do, that look on your dog’s face is actually just the more basic feeling of joy.
Likewise, when you would feel guilty for indulging in something even though you knew it was wrong, that cowering stance and sad look that your dog has is just his way of showing that he’s afraid of being punished.
Stanley Coren, PhD, the dog “psychologist” explains this situation the best in his Psychology Today column:
“However this is not guilt, but simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment—he will never feel guilt.”
Science and research have helped us this far in understanding our dogs and how they feel. Now, owners can use that same research to improve the relationship with their pets, to comfort dogs or find some type of relief for themselves. Here are some articles related to psychology of dogs, science and emotions:
- Depressed Pets: How to Help a Dog with Depression
- Helping A Dog Adjust When The Owner Passes Away
- How to Know If Your Dog Is Upset?
- Is Your Dog a Gambling Addict?
- Study Shines Light On Why We Choose Certain Dogs
Dogs can sense people's emotions
Now that we've answered the question “do dogs have feelings,” one thing to keep in mind is that our dogs can sense our emotions as well. They pick up on our energy and body language, which has been scientifically proven.
Most pet owners will be happy to learn that it is not uncommon for dogs to seem like they are comforting people who are feeling sad or upset about something. Also, as every dog owner knows, when you are happy and excited your dog will feed off that energy as well.
Next time, keep this in mind when you are experiencing heightened emotions. If you are extra excited or happy about something, don't blame your dog from having a burst of energy, jumping up on you or starting to bark. He's just sensing your emotions and doing what he thinks he should do in response to them. When dogs are feeling extra happy they run, jump and bark. Your Fido is just trying to please you.
We all know dogs express emotions, but this deeper understanding of exactly which emotions they can feel is certainly enlightening. Now you can feel free to dress your dog in silly outfits or make him perform funny tricks in front of guests, and you can be sure that he is not feeling embarrassed.
However, recent studies have found that dogs can discriminate emotions in people. Basically, canines can “kind of” tell what emotions people experience based off their faces, which is an amazing discovery.
“A team of cognitive scientists has demonstrated for the first time that dogs can differentiate between happy and angry human faces. Dogs may have developed this skill due to their close relationship with people, in which the animals have learned to understand certain aspects of human non-verbal communication.”
You can also take comfort in knowing that when you’re happy your dog will be happy with you and when you’re sad your pup will be right there to comfort you. Any dog lover will tell you that there is nothing like the unconditional love of a dog.
Here are a few more articles from our science and dogs category that you may enjoy: