BEHAVIOR & TRAINING

Dog Emotions: Are They Real? Explanations on Basic Dog Signals

Smiling dog
John Walton
Written by John Walton

If you are going to pose this question to pet owners, most would definitely say that dog emotions are real even though they are not as complex or more fully expressed than a human’s. This is often the reason why dogs are often treated as additional “children” or members of the family compared to other animals such as cats or birds. Dogs have this particular ability to show affection, joy, sadness, playfulness, anger, and even jealousy as other studies have proposed. But seeing that these dogs are only animals, how can we be sure that they really have the capacity to show emotions?

How do we know that our own observations are enough to justify our beliefs? Can we say with definitive answers that we also have to treat our dogs like a human just because they also are capable of feelings? Or can we just simply dismiss them as natural reactions of dogs?

Sad dog

There is an opposite stance to the idea that dogs have emotions. This group proposes that the supposed “emotions” that we see in our pets are just their natural reactions to various stimuli that are presented to them. Our dogs are happy whenever they see us because they associate our presence with food and other rewards. The implied jealousy and guilt reactions that we see are just reactions to anticipated rewards and punishments to which the dog has been exposed to.

Hence, what they are displaying are only impulses or natural animal traits to which people project a humanistic value to. To have a clear answer to this question it would be best to take the explanations from both sides in order to better understand the issue.

The con’s view

This side offers several explanations as to why a dog’s emotions are not actually real. They say that what we witness in several instances, where these emotions are implied by people, is actually a dog’s natural animalistic behavior which has stemmed from its ancestors – wolves. Humans have a tendency to project human emotions in dogs, which is why they say, their conclusions are never really reliable and accurate. Here are some of their explanations regarding the emotions of dogs.

  • Jealousy – This is a very common consequence of either having new pets or even a new baby coming in the house. Some owners can even say that their pet has become withdrawn or aggressive when the new pet or baby arrived. According to those who do not believe in dog emotions, this is only a natural reaction to the idea of having a new member of the “pack.”
    The dogs either become confused as to their position in the pack or they may sense the added apprehension or nervousness by the owners as they welcome a new member of the family. Aside from this, it should also be taken into account that dogs are territorial animals and this can also contribute to the aggression that can come about as new dogs are brought home.
  • Guilt – Various homemade videos on YouTube as well as other social media sites purportedly show dogs acting “guilty” after they have done something that their owners disapprove of. You will see the usual reactions such as swept back ears, lowered gazes, lying down on the floor and exposing their belly, and other “submissive” actions. But a study revealed that dogs will actually show the same behavior even if they did not do the deed being accused of them. Hence, showing this behavior does not actually indicate guilt.
  • Love – Most dog owners assume that their pets love them because they see them wagging their tails, licking them, and whining which just shows how excited they are whenever they are around.  Well, those who are opposed to dog emotions actually interpret this as a dog’s way of greeting the leader of the pack. Dogs view their owners as pack leaders and it is common in the wild for the pack members to show some deference to the Alpha dog.
  • Sadness – A lot of people know that when dogs get separated from their owners they show behaviors which are similar to sadness. This includes howling, whining, destroying things, and even pooping and peeing inside the house. Well, these can be interpreted as a dog looking for his pack as wolves that often become separated from their pack howl in the wild. The lonely and forlorn howl is also quite similar to those that house pets do.

The pro’s view

Those who believe that dogs do show emotions also have a scientific basis to their beliefs aside from their personal assessment. Thus, one can also rely on these observations to be reliable and factual. What these studies show however, is that a dog’s emotional responses are somehow limited but they still they have the potential to exhibit more complex ones.

Emotions at dogs

Here are their explanations regarding the seeming emotions that are displayed by dogs.

  • Joy – According to research, dogs can express joy and even laughter but in their own unique way. This was found after a study showed that dogs actually loosen up and become less stressed after hearing the sounds that other dogs produced while they are at play. Puppies who heard the sounds also began to play around after hearing the recorded sound. This only proved that a dog can also express joy even though to humans it may sound a bit more like panting.
  • Love – This was discovered after a scientist at Emory University conducted fMRI scans on dogs. He studied the brain activity of dogs after being exposed to various stimuli such as signals for food and seeing their owners again after they have briefly left the room. The study found that a certain region of the brain called the caudate nucleus is activated in dogs whenever they see these stimuli. The same area in human brains is associated with pleasurable experiences.
  • Sadness – This is attributed to the fact that dogs also have the hormone Cortisol which is often associated with stress and depression in humans. We all know how dogs behave when they are left at home or are separated from dogs that they have grown up with or with their owners.
  • Anger – This is quite easy and is also one of the most recognizable emotions in dogs. One minute, they may be happily bouncing off in the park and the next minute their feet are planted in the ground and their ears perks up. They stare at another dog or human which caught their interest and they emit that growl. Scientists have actually discovered that dogs possess a neurological structure that is similar to that of a 2-year old human child. Hence, they believe that dogs can exhibit basic emotions including anger.
  • Jealousy – A study showed that dogs that were not given rewards for doing a particular trick will stop doing so if they see another dog perform the same trick and be given rewards. Although this can be quite complicated, this only shows that dogs do have that sense of being treated fairly. In the study, the dogs did continue a bit to perform the trick until they have seen repeatedly that another dog was given treats while it was withheld from them.

Aside from the said explanations, studies have also revealed that dogs are somehow less inhibited when it comes to showing their emotions. According to a study, dogs have a smaller cortical complex which is where decisions and other self-conscious thoughts are made. Since they have a more limited ability to deliberate, dogs can actually show their emotions without having to be too self-conscious about it.

Recent studies have also shown that dogs can differentiate various human emotions just by looking at pictures of people’s faces. They can tell whether you are stressed, angry, or happy just by looking at your face.

There is also the fact that dogs have a lot more olfactory nerves than most humans. Dogs usually sense and interpret the world around through the use of their sense of smell. What is different though about this sensory organ is that it does not follow the same route of passing information as other senses have. The organ is directly connected to the portion of the brain called the “amygdala” which is also the region where strong emotions are usually associated in humans.

Hence, when dogs smell something they can immediately exhibit the necessary emotion that they attach to it. They can be protective and even nurse babies and young animals, be happy when their owner arrives, angry at robbers and other people who mean harm, and be playful with other dogs.

The correct view

This can be one of the hardest things to decide upon especially since both of the views presented have underlying scientific facts to base on. Yes, dogs have wolves as their genetic ancestors and they do tend to exhibit the characteristics of dogs in packs but studies have also shown similarities in the brain structure of dogs to humans when it comes to emotions so it is also possible that they can exhibit genuine emotions.

How do we totally negate the idea that dogs have emotions when we, who have the same brain structures, have been found to be capable of emotions just by possessing the same? How do we explain a dog’s nurturing character to other animals which are commonly taken by them to be food in the wild? But even though these same facts supporting dog emotions are true, we also need to take into consideration that their emotions are quite limited as shown by scientific research.

Hence, some of their behaviors can still be attributed to previous experience with the owner or due to the “pack” mentality of dogs. This is deeply rooted in a dog’s system that we cannot easily dismiss it.

Dogs view their owners as pack leaders and will often show behavior that they usually do with what is known as the “Alpha” dog. You will be able to notice this especially when they are being territorial and possessive of their “pack.”

This situation definitely makes it hard to determine whether a dog’s emotion exists or not but I think the best answer would lie on the owner themselves. One’s direct experience in raising their pets can never be judged by another especially in terms of the bond that the owner and their pet have formed. Some have known their pet’s ability to feel sad or happy depending on the circumstances while others can only deem it to be based on the supposed absence or presence of something that the dog wants.

Dog body language poster

But in the end, I think the most important thing that anyone should keep in mind is that regardless of whether they have emotions or not these dogs still deserve to be treated in a kind and humane way. This is something that people often tend to ignore when it comes to dealing with dogs especially when they think that dogs do not have emotions.

Since they are only driven by rewards and punishments, they often make use of the punishment system in order to teach their dogs how to behave or even neglect their physical needs. The supposed absence of emotions in dogs should never be an excuse for anyone to treat them as another object that we can abuse or dispose of when we want to.

In conclusion, perhaps it would be best if we take a closer look at our dogs and examine their behavior on different types of situations. How do they react when we scold or punish them? What about when you arrive home after a long absence? What do they do when they know you are angry? How do they react to other dogs or strangers? How do they act when you withhold something that they want from them? This should give you an idea on whether a dog really has emotions or not and from that observation, you will also gain insight on how you can treat your dog better.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.

  • Daisy Simmons

    Our past neighborhood is not the best place for dogs. There are a lot of strays just wandering around and there is a chance to be run over or maltreated by someone or other. It’s distressing to find obvious scenes of animal cruelty, and the main mentality in that dreary neighborhood was that dogs are mere animals. Never have I been so glad to transfer to another home! While our new neighborhood wasn’t explicitly geared towards animal lover, I never had to stop a neighbor from beating a poor dog or having a debate on their treatment! This article sure does bring back memories.

    • John Walton

      Thanks for your story, Daisy. Not all neighborhoods and communities can be conducive for dogs and their owners, but then we should adjust on what we have. The change starts with you, and keep your advocacy against animal cruelty.

  • Tory Carpenter

    I think this are very simple signals and everybody who has a dog need to know them. They are very easy to remember and it is important that they can help you monitor the state of health of your pet.

    • John Walton

      They use their facial muscles, paws, and their tails to give off signals to capture our attention. You just have to be sensitive enough to decipher what they are trying to tell you.

  • Bruce Morgan

    Of course, they are real!
    Any dog owner will confirm you that his dog has emotions, he reacts, surprises, smiles, stays angry. He shows that not only with his movements, waving tail but also on the face!

    • John Walton

      While dogs cannot speak in a human level to clearly express how they feel during that particular moment, they are equipped with gestures and sounds that they can emit to capture your attention. They can also make faces like smile or look like they’re frowning.

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