What Emotions Can Dogs Really Feel?

There has been, for a number of years, some argument as to dogs’ emotions. Back in the distant past, the philosopher Descartes argued that dogs were simply a kind of machine, which are unable to think, nor to feel. That they could only be programmed to act in certain ways. Things have progressed far, however, since Descartes’s day.

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With scientific studies, we have come to understand that there is more to dogs than this, as any dog lover will know. We now understand that dogs possess the same brain structures that produce human emotions. They have the same hormones and experience the same chemical changes as we do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with feeling love and affection for others. With the same neurological and chemical make-up, it’s plain to see that dogs do experience emotions. However, these emotions are not as developed as ours.

Researchers believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivilent to the mind of a two to two-and-a-half year old child. This seems to hold true for mental capacity as well as emotions.

At birth, the human baby has one emotion: excitement. In the first weeks of life, the baby’s state of excitement comes to take on a positive or negative flavour, dependent on whether the baby is experiencing contentment or distress. The next emotions to develop, over the following few months, are fear, anger and disgust. Joy appears at six months of age, shortly followed by shyness and suspicion. Affection, or ‘love’, doesn’t appear until a child is ten months of age.

Emotions that we would call shame, guilt and pride, do not appear in human children until three years of age. Furthermore, science has shown that children do not feel ‘contempt’ until they are nearly four.

Dogs go through their developmental stages a lot quicker than humans. They have their full emotional range by the time they reach six months of age (give or take, depending on the breed). Importantly, we know that a dog will never exceed the emotional intelligence of a two-and-a-half year old child.

In short, a dog can feel joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, but it cannot feel guilty, proud or ashamed.

Some dog owners will insist that their dog does feel guilt, based on the way that the dog behaves when it has done something that is forbidden. However it may look, the expression you see on your dog’s face, when it has left a brown present on the kitchen floor, is not guilt, but fear of punishment.

The good news is that you can happily dress your dog up in a silly costume: he is not capable of feeling ashamed. However, he will also feel no pride in winning first prize in that dog show. More importantly, though, you can rest assured that your dog is more than capable of feeling love for you, and derives great pleasure from your company.