Do Dogs Have Emotions?

Do dogs have emotions? Of course they do, and every dog owner comes to recognise their dog's moods from body language and facial expressions, from the noises their pet makes and from the very way their dog moves. We instinctively know whether our dogs are excited, happy, sad, frustrated or anxious.

Nonetheless it's long been a topic of hot debate amongst behavioural experts largely because it's very hard to quantify or measure emotions. While it is clear that your dog has a rich emotional life, scientists cannot measure exactly how happy or fearful he may be, and so many have chosen to ignore emotions and the fact that they play any role in how a dog learns to behave or express himself.

What are emotions?
Emotions are what give dogs an impulse to act in response to an event or situation, and also how they feel when they have reacted. For example, the negative or 'aversive' emotion of fear may arouse dogs to defend themselves, while the positive feelings of contact and touch may help to form and maintain relationships with others within a group. Emotions may be divided into positive or negative feelings, and have rising or decreasing scales. For example, pleasure increases as an animal feels happier to feelings of elation and ecstasy, while frustration can increase to anger and rage, and apprehension to fear and terror. Animals with behaviour problems are often heading to the extremes of an emotional scale at the time they demonstrate their problem behaviour.

Recent research has demonstrated that all mammals, dogs included, have seven fundamental, basic, emotional systems that provide the ability to react to information about what enters the brain via the senses. These 'magnificent seven' include a seeking system to look for food, a fear system to respond to unfamiliar events that may be dangerous, a play system and a care system to raise offspring and form vital social attachments.

More recently evolved areas of the advanced human brain can process this emotional capability into the more elaborate emotions of love, shame, contempt, worry, etc. Whilst we don't associate such 'higher feelings' with dogs, this does not in any way detract from the fact they feel more basic emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and fear in the same way that we do.

Modern pet behaviourists realise that emotions are, in fact, essential to how animals learn anything at all (even if precise measurement of these feelings remains elusive) and use emotional assessment as the basis of treating pet behaviour problems. This approach has been pioneered by behaviourists such as Purina consultant behaviourist, Peter Neville at the Centre for Applied Pet Ethology (COAPE) and it is now being used successfully by behaviour therapists all over the world. You can learn more at www.coape.org.

Emotional problems
Recognising that dogs have emotions is helping to drive progress in other fields, such as dealing with behavioural problems, like aggression, excessive grooming, and nervousness. Typically assessment is in three stages;

  • an emotional assessment of the dog at the time the problem is observed.
  • a mood state assessment of how the dog feels and behaves generally.
  • a reinforcement assessment of exactly which factors, external and internal, are maintaining the problem behaviour, often in spite of many varied attempts to remove it.

By taking into account the emotions dogs feel, rather than simply looking at how they behave, animal behaviourists are now learning to get to grip with solving these problems much more effectively.