If you’ve ever caught your dog rummaging around in the trash, their guilty look may seem like a pretty convincing answer to the question: Do dogs have feelings?
Although we love our canine companions, many of us are still interested in discovering whether there is any scientific basis for your dog’s feelings.
In fact, when pondering the topic of dog emotions, several questions can often arise.
Can dogs feel emotion? What emotions can dogs feel? Do dogs similar feelings to humans? Can you hurt your dog’s feelings?
In this article, we’ll dig a little deeper into the question of whether dogs have feelings.
Do Dogs Have Emotions?
Indeed, dogs do have feelings! As it turns out, devoted dog owners were right all along. But what is the evidence?
Gregory Burns, a Neuroscientist at Emory University recently conducted studies using MRI to examine the brains of dogs to address the question: Do dogs have feelings?
Surprisingly, when exposed to positive experiences, a dog brain react in a very similar way to a human brain. The findings are summarized in Burns’ recent book.
In fact, the idea that animals have intelligence and experience emotions is now accepted and research is now focussed on how complex these feelings are.
What Emotions do Dogs Feel?
The brain of a dog is thought to operate at a similar level to that of a 2.5-year-old child.
This means your dog can have feelings of excitement, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion/shyness, and affection/love.
Of all the emotions your dog experiences and expresses, love is probably the one that touches your heart the most and you can read more about it here.
For now, let’s take a closer look at some other common emotions your dog experiences and how to recognize your dog’s emotions.
Do Dogs Have Feelings of Happiness?
As you watch your dog bound around the yard, tongue out, with an undoubtedly goofy look on their face, tail working energetically, it seems silly to even ask, do dogs have feelings?
You’re clearly looking at an extremely happy dog.
Recently, one researcher even discovered that dogs appear to laugh! Which does make me suspicious as to whether our dogs have been laughing at us all this time?
When studying canine emotions, scientists are often interested in a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is surprisingly similar in dogs and humans.
This part of the brain is rich in dopamine receptors and dopamine play a large role in experiencing happiness.
The caudate nucleus is also hard at work when we’re anticipating something we’re looking forward to.
So it seems that although the brains of dogs are smaller than ours when dogs are anticipating something enjoyable, they feel the same emotions we feel.
Do Dogs Have Feelings of Sadness?
Many species have been found to experience sadness, most notably grief when someone close to them is lost.
It also appears that dogs can detect sadness in humans. At least some of the information dogs collect to determine if we are sad or happy comes from the sounds we make.
For instance, dogs can differentiate between laughing and sighing based on the length and rhythm of sounds we make.
If your dog detects sadness, they may try to comfort you with a soft nudge or paw on your lap. So, it seems dogs can detect and react to sadness in humans.
And animals are most definitely capable of feeling sadness and grief. However, exactly how dogs experience grief and sadness is yet to be fully grasped.
Do Dogs Have Feelings of Fear?
A dog that is afraid will do many things anything from cowering with its tail wedged firmly between its legs, to urinating or defecating, or even attacking the object or individual it is afraid of.
Fear is an important emotion to recognize, as not only is it distressing for your dog, but a scared dog can be unpredictable.
Therefore, effectively managing the situation is important for everyone’s safety. Interestingly, fear is often misinterpreted as guilt.
If your pooch has been up to no good while you were out—picture the contents of the trash all over the kitchen floor— you will most likely come home to a dog that avoids you, cowering with their tail between their legs, and won’t make eye contact.
But this is not actual guilt, since guilt is more complex, and only experienced by children when they reach 3.5 to 4 years of age.
And as we’ve learned, a dog’s brain sits at the developmental age of around 2.5 human years.
Therefore, this emotion is actually fear. If your dog knows they’ve been disciplined before for this type of behavior and have upset you, they’re afraid of the consequences.
Do Dogs Have Feelings of Anxiety?
Anxiety is like the unpleasant cousin of fear—the two emotions are related.
Anxiety is the response to fear or perceived threat and is sometimes referred to as a secondary emotion.
Signs of an anxious dog include trembling, avoidance, pacing, and inappropriate elimination.
There is some questioning among researchers as to whether dogs experience anxiety as we have come to understand it.
However, separation anxiety in dogs is well known, moreover, drugs approved by the FDA are regularly used to treat anxious dogs.
So, whereas brain activity may not fully reveal anxiety just yet, countless anecdotal evidence dogs suffering from anxiety suggests dogs do experience anxiety.
Understanding Your Dog’s Emotions
Now that we know dogs do have emotions, understanding these emotions is the next important step.
For example, recognizing when an excited dog has started to feel more frightened than happy.
It’s important to remember that your dog is like a small child, capable of loving you and afraid of the consequences of upsetting you.
A dog simply doesn’t have the mental capacity to be manipulative, cruel or intentionally hurtful.
Your dog really is your best friend and when you want to goof around, they aren’t going to get embarrassed—they can’t! So, neither should you.
Most importantly, remember that your dog has a great capacity to feel love and happiness. And if you cultivate these feelings, everyone is going to benefit.
Some Final Thoughts on Do Dogs Have Feelings
Hopefully, you’ve found this article interesting and are now satisfied you know the answer to the question: Do dogs have feelings?
As a dog lover, you may find that two of the most endearing emotions your dog displays are love and loyalty.
And there are, of course, plenty of heartwarming tales out there about dogs showing love to their owners.
Do you have an interesting story to share? Tell us all about it in the comments below.
References and Further Reading
Berns G. 2017. What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience. Basic Books.
Berns GS, Brooks AM, Spivak M. 2014. Scent of the familiar: an fMRI study of canine brain responses to familiar and unfamiliar human and dog odors. Behavioural Processes.
Berns GS, Brooks AM, Spivak M. 2012. Functional MRI in awake unrestrained dogs. PLoS One.
Simonet P, Versteeg D, Storie D. 2005. Dog-laughter: Recorded Playback Reduces Stress-Related Behavior in Shelter Dogs. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Environmental Enrichment.
Panksepp J, Burgdorf J. 2003. “Laughing” rats and the evolutionary antecedents of human joy? Physiology & Behavior.
Plotnik JM, de Waal FBM, and Reiss D. 2006. Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. PNAS.
Bekoff M. 2011. Animal Emotions: Exploring Passionate Natures: Current interdisciplinary research provides compelling evidence that many animals experience such emotions as joy, fear, love, despair, and grief—we are not alone. Bioscience.
Andics A et al. 2015. Voice-Sensitive Regions in the Dog and Human Brain Are Revealed by Comparative fMRI. Current Biology.
Romero T, Konno A, and Hasegawa T. 2013. Familiarity bias and physiological responses in contagious yawning by dogs support link to empathy. PLoS One.