If I don’t throw the ball fast enough for my Lab mix Ace, he will bark as though he’s frustrated. If I leave for a walk without him, I’m told Ace will sometimes whine as though he’s sad or upset. When he’s reunited with an old friend, he wiggles and wags with obvious happiness.
Of course, it’s easy to make assumptions about my dog’s emotions. I don’t actually know what he’s experiencing. But if you ask any dog owner if his dog has emotions, he will say, “Of course!” Anyone who’s lived with a dog knows that dogs do experience emotions of some kind.
The book “Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow Creatures” by science writer Virginia Morell focuses on a variety of animals, including dogs. It gives examples that show how animals as simple as ants and fish possess the ability to learn, think and feel on some level.
Morell wrote how Charles Darwin believed dogs possess “moral qualities such as affection, trust, worthiness, temper, and probably general intelligence.” Darwin thought the dog’s relationship with humans had helped it gain emotional and cognitive similarities to ours and that dogs experience pleasure, pain, happiness and memory. He also believed dogs have imaginations, the power to reason, to feel love, jealousy, pride, and something akin to a conscience and religion.
Scientists today seem to think certain emotions may be beyond dogs.
Dr. Patricia McConnell writes about dog behavior on her blog “The Other End of the Leash.” In her post “What Emotions Do You Share With Your Dog?” she wrote how emotions such as jealousy and guilt are called “secondary” emotions and many biologists, psychologists and philosophers believe that non-human animals can’t experience them.
“The argument is that they can’t be experienced without a relatively high level of cognition, particularly the ability to be self aware and knowledgeable about the mental state of others,” she wrote.
Thinking about my own dog Ace, I’m not sure whether he experiences “jealousy” or “guilt.” Is he truly jealous when I throw his favorite dog toy for another pup? Or is he simply frustrated?
I have worked in the dog boarding/pet sitting industry long enough to observe how dog owners tend to project their own emotions on their dogs. When leaving for a vacation, dog owners tend to believe their dogs will sit and pine over them the entire time. They’ll leave dog beds, favorite blankets or stuffed animals in an attempt to comfort their dogs. Perhaps if our dogs are that dependent on us, it makes us feel loved and needed. In reality, the dogs I’ve observed seem to show a bit of “sadness” only until the owner is out of sight. Once the owner is gone, the dog is happy to adapt to the situation.
Scientists believe a dog’s mind is roughly equivalent to a 2-and-a-half-year-old human, wrote Dr. Stanley Coren in PsychologyToday.com’s blog “Canine Corner” in a post called “What Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?”
Knowing this, we can look to the human research to see what we might expect from dogs, he wrote. “Like a young child, dogs will clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than we find in adults.”
Based on this idea, Coren wrote that a dog will likely have all the basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and love. But a dog may not experience more complex emotions such as guilt, pride and shame.
It’s an interesting and difficult subject. What do you think?
What emotions do you think your dog experiences?