How do Dogs Show Emotions?

Cathy Rogers

Various studies have shown that dogs show emotions such as love, grief, jealousy and fear. The scientific confirmation of animal emotions is relatively recent. According to studies by a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, researchers found dogs to be fairly emotionally complex, with four specific areas of personality: competence, emotional stability, affection and sociability. These components are very similar to the categories of human personality.

Because dogs cannot express their feelings linguistically, their barks or howls might indicate various canine emotions.
Because dogs cannot express their feelings linguistically, their barks or howls might indicate various canine emotions.

Many dog owners are not surprised that dogs show emotions. Some researchers, however, argue that animals do not have emotions, but rather that they respond to various incentives, for example food. Others believe that dogs react instinctively, not emotionally. Some scientists agree that dogs show emotions such as fear or alarm, but don’t necessarily agree that dogs can feel love or guilt. Others readily admit that canines have emotions, but that they are not the same as human emotions.

A dog might indicate boredom or frustration by scratching.
A dog might indicate boredom or frustration by scratching.

Some animal behaviors, including hygiene behaviors such as scratching or grooming, can also indicate frustration or boredom. For example, a dog might increase the frequency of these behaviors when in situations of tension, uncertainty or looming danger, just as a human might tug at his or her hair or bite his or her nails. Many studies of animal emotions involve primates, but studies are common with dogs and other animals, as well.

Primates are a common subject in studies that explore animal emotions.
Primates are a common subject in studies that explore animal emotions.

In early 2008, Hungarian scientists tested software that could potentially discern the emotions behind a dog’s bark in various situations. The initial study involved 14 herding dogs as they played, fought, spotted a ball, went on walks, were alone, and encountered a stranger. It is thought that because dogs cannot express their feelings linguistically, the bark might indicate various canine emotions.

Ethology is the study of animal behavior.
Ethology is the study of animal behavior.

A study by a psychologist and animal behavior expert in England determined that dogs show emotions such as jealousy, shame, embarrassment, anxiety, pride, anger and surprise. In this particular study, dogs experienced jealousy more frequently than other animal species, including hamsters, rabbits, cats, pigs and horses. It is thought that because dogs are social creatures they would experience several societal type of emotions.

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. As the field has advanced, other specialties have arisen, including the study of animal emotions, animal communication and sexual conduct. These advanced fields are likely to continue to research the depth of dogs' emotions.

Some studies have shown that dogs can experience love.
Some studies have shown that dogs can experience love.

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Discussion Comments

anon1001461

It was Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who was the first scientist who believed that animals had emotions and he studied the expression of emotions, especially those in the domestic dog. Many dog owners will tell you that their dog has emotions, and they're seen as similar to ours. Scientific research has enabled us to see that dogs have the same brain structures as humans in producing those emotions and also the same hormones which go through the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin which is involved in affection and love.

Dogs, however, do not have all the same emotions that humans have and there is a reason for it. From the birth of a baby to adulthood, a human will acquire all their emotions in life by the age of about four years old. With a dog this actually stops at around the age of 2 1/2. Therefore, there are four emotions that they are unable to acquire. These are shame, pride, guilt and contempt. They are able to experience distress, anger, joy, fear, affection love, contentment, and shyness. The reason it stops at 2 1/2 years old for a dog is that the dog only acquires a mentality of a 2 1/2 year old child.

We can tell the dog is in an emotional state which can be positive such as happy or negative, such as fear. We can see how their posture changes, along with the facial expressions, vocalizations, and muscle tone. Whether separately or all together, these indicate an emotional response to a certain situation. Primary emotions are instinctive (inborn), which are from the limbic system in the brain. There are also secondary emotions which are involved in the cerebral cortex. The primary emotion, say, of fear, relates to the instinct of survival 'flight or fight' and then the secondary emotion will allow for the action of variable behavior, depending on how the dog responds.

@Anon114710 : Very true. Each dog is an individual with their own personality and character. You are asking how it is possible a response to be "instinct" for some dogs when other dogs do not react to the same thing/s. As puppies, dogs go through fear periods and many understand about the socialization period to introduce the dog to many stimuli such as other people, dogs, traffic, babies, children, environments etc. When a puppy gets to see the stimuli, they take all the information in and it is 'recorded' in long term memory if the exercise is repeated often for it to happen.

A positive response (such as being inquisitive and calm) to stimuli results in the dog giving a similar response the next time. A lot of reaction to stimuli which is negative is out of fear, mainly due to the lack of socialization or the temperament of the mother, or conditions and abuse the puppy may have had, (e.g., puppy farms). A puppy who is isolated from the outside world is unable to have the chance to add to the long term memory of an event, they do not know how to respond and if they feel threatened then they will use the emotion of fear. Fear is the 'instinctive' survival mechanism of 'flight or fight', and dogs who are not equipped with any knowledge will react instinctively, even if there is no threat.

@Anon107069: You are correct that dogs respond to stimuli. However, the basic emotions that a dog has are not learned, but are acquired by a developmental stage that's same as for us from when we are babies. Those emotions are seen when the dog responds to how they see the stimuli which can be positive or negative. I t will involve an emotion. The response to any stimuli can become a learned behavior if it works for the dog, such as aggression which makes the 'threat go away' will be repeated but there is an underlying emotion of fear which is inborn attached to it.

So whatever the dog does, his perception of the situation will determine the response and of what emotion will be attached to it. Although unlike humans, dogs can't speak. One way is to learn their body language. It can tell you so much about how the dog is feeling. Also, examine their facial expressions and vocal sounds. I think you are saying that it is nuture that decides how a dog responds, but it is a mixture of nature (instinct,inborn) and nuture (learned) Check out the research on dogs' emotions. Numerous ones studies have been done, and it is an interesting read.

anon948244

I am an older male who owned a yellow lab. He was definitely a Marley dog! He was my hunting partner, buddy and grandkids' pillow/ horse! He loved them.

Since I have cardiac issues I trained him that when I stop walking, he stops too. During the training, I would get to the top of the hill where he could see my truck. He would bolt and get all the way there and jump in the back. Then I would yell, "Ollie!" and he would look at me like, "Oh crap. I screwed up!" Then he would run to my side. He learned to stay by me. Unfortunately, he lost his life to bone cancer and I gave up hunting pheasants. I cannot bring myself to get another yellow lab, because once you have the best lab, no other will do.

anon152557

I have a six month old lab. I am so close to him and it's almost like he talks to me in body form.

I ask if he's been naughty and he'll submissively put his ears back, slowly /quietly come over to me virtually climb up me as tall as he can, begging for me to lower my face to him. He then gives me two licks on my cheek. Now. if that isn't apologizing, I've no idea what it is.

If i have ever slightly raised my voice-i did it once-he was sitting the other side of a door frame and peered round again the ears went back but there was such a look on his face (i nearly laughed) but he was pleading to come and say sorry.

My dog is very responsive and sensitive. I don't need to raise my voice, let alone shout, he gives proper cuddles with his paws on either side of my neck, he curls his pads somehow to pull you close, he places or rubs his cheek next to ours and can sit like that happily for ages.

He has an ashamed face if he goofs up, and he has a proud, serious head like when he's watching tv and he pretends we're not there. So yes, dogs do have emotions. Maybe some don't have a conscience.

anon114710

Animals for sure show emotions. that is an ignorant comment that they don't! if you spend enough time with various animals, it is almost scary how human-like they are.

even within different types of dogs, they have individual "personalities" how could that be a "response" or "reaction"/"instinct" when different animals react differently to the same stimuli/situation?

separation of animals/emotions seems to be a story many people use to justify inhumane treatment of animals (i.e. they're "just" dogs/cows/pigs, it's not like they feel). please treat animals with love and care!

anon111323

Dogs definitely have emotions. The people that I come across that say that they do not are always people who are ignorant about dogs in general.

anon107069

Rubbish. Dogs only respond to stimuli. What humans perceive as emotion are simply learned behaviors which dogs know to elicit a response in their human owner. That's it. Some argue that the animals reaction to stimuli can be labeled as a form of emotion. I suppose if one were to liberally interpret the word emotion, than that would be fine.

anon84615

My Husky carries his toys and puts them in bed or on the couch to sleep with them. He has fathered a litter of pups about four months ago and does not live with them. Could he be thinking the toys are his pups or is he just guarding them?

anon15915

Hi, we have two GSPs male and female, they clearly show emotions, respond to separate spoken words and appear to associate or understand the meaning. If you speak in a quiet tone and say they have been naughty, they swallow like some children when confronted by some event. Interesting as dogs are closer aligned to home living and socialized there may be a lot more discovered about their ability to understand.

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