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What emotions do dogs feel?

Published on 27th December 2016

COMMON MYTH: dogs feel human emotions like guilt and shame

REALITY: dogs are said to feel emotions such as joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, however it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.

Researchers have now come to believe that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities — including emotions, meaning we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs.

A dogs emotions can be compared to that of a small child…

Like a young child, dogs will clearly have certain emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than we find in adults. This is because complex social emotions, those which have elements that must be learned, don’t appear until later in the child’s development. Shame and pride take more than three years to appear, while guilt even longer, appearing around six months after these. A child must be nearly four years of age before it feels contempt.

This developmental sequence is the key to understanding the emotions of dogs. Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do, and have all of the emotional range that they will ever achieve by the time they are four to six months of age (depending on the rate of maturing in their breed), hence the comparison with a younger child. The assortment of emotions available to the dog will not however exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, however according to current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.

So why does my dog look guilty when it’s done something wrong?

So you’ve come home from work and find a large poop deposited on your carpet. No matter how much you try you can not hide your scrumpled face and often gasp out loud. It is only natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that it is feeling guilty about the incident. However this is not guilt, but likely to simply be the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his poop is visible on the floor, your whole body posture, expression changes and your tone of voice may raise. What you see is his fear of punishment, even if you never actually physically punish your dog the mere fact that you are acting differently or appear angry is punishing in itself.

So what can we learn from this…

As a dog’s emotions are similar to that of a younger child it’s important to treat them always with the greatest respect. Understand like us they experience fear, so think if you are doing something that is causing unnecessary stress, please stop.

Thanks for reading
Helen Motteram, BSc (hons)
Helen@socialpawscheltenham.co.uk