We know that dogs have emotions, but do they have the same feelings that humans do? Most of us can tell when our favorite pal is happy or angry. But how many emotions do dogs and humans actually share?
Some leading scientists believe that there are 8 primary emotions that dogs share with us, but the number and complexity of canine emotions are more limited than those of humans. Within 6 months of age, puppies have developed their full spectrum of emotions. Yet, the range of dog emotions will never exceed that of a two-and-a-half-year-old human toddler.
Canine versus Human Emotional Development
So what are the emotions that dogs feel? Most of them are similar to the full range of basic emotions that humans experience, save the more complex feelings and emotions that older children and adults develop. Psychology Today published a great article on March 14th, 2013, Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., DSc, which includes a chart comparing dog development to human development. The canine brain does not develop the more complex emotions such as shame, pride, and guilt found in maturing children. Although, some would argue against that theory.
What most scientists and psychologists do agree on is that humans and mammals have the same group of primary emotions used for survival. The primitive, limbic part of the brain triggers and processes these feelings in reaction to stimuli in our immediate environment. Running away from a mountain lion will certainly evoke feelings of fear in most of us. Likewise, eating a good meal creates feelings of joy and contentment.
Primary, Secondary, and Complex Emotions
Some psychologists argue that some basic emotions can also be secondary emotions. As an example, fear can be a primary emotion that triggers a second primary emotion–anger. Or, anger can lead to frustration. A primary emotion such as joy can trigger happiness. The importance of understanding if an emotion is a primary or secondary feeling can sometimes help determine the root cause of a particular behavior. As an example, angrily lashing out at someone may stem from fear of being attacked. This could be true for both dogs and humans, in which fear is the primary or root emotion. Take away the fear, and the anger may dissipate.
Additionally, combinations of emotions such as joy and acceptance can lead to more complex emotions like love. Although there is some debate regarding whether or not dogs can develop more complex emotions like mature humans, there is some agreement that dogs, like humans, can combine some emotions to create another emotion such as love.
For now, let’s focus on the eight primary emotions that humans and dogs use for survival and everyday living. After years of studying emotions, American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik postulated that there are 8 primary human emotions that are foundational building blocks of other emotions. Many animal behavioral scientists believe that most mammals share these same basic emotions–acceptance, anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.
Acceptance is a basic emotion that elicits trust, attachment, interest in another being. A sense of acceptance is the first step leading to feelings of love. See my post Can Dogs Actually Feel Love for more on this. Animals and humans alike tend to maintain a distance and will initially be wary of strangers. Put a dog on a leash and take him to the park, and you will see what I mean! Depending upon the breed, there is often some barking and growling when strange dogs encounter each other nearby. Owners, too, will be courteous to passersby, but then we tend to move on with our walk.
But once a dog realizes that a new dog or human is not a threat and may even be pleasant to be around, acceptance begins. Dogs with an abusive or neglected past may take a lot longer to warm up to strange people and other dogs, but it can happen over time. After a dog feels acceptance and experiences consistency in the new relationship, trust can build and bonds can be established.
Anyone who has stood frozen in their tracks after encountering a large barking dog with teeth bared has probably encountered a dog with a lot of anger. Unfortunate mutts chained up in a front yard and trained to attack intruders can display some pretty frightening hostility when someone approaches. Humans and dogs will both take action when motivated by anger. An angry guard dog will growl, bark, and bite as a result.
Even in more benign situations, an angry dog may first growl as a warning. My two mixed breed dogs learned a long time ago not to bother one another while eating. I can place their bowls within a couple of feet of each other, and they will happily munch on their own food without any problems arising. One time, however, Georgia moved a little too close to her sister, who was finishing up some delicious cooked rice and chicken. I was surprised to watch Charlotte growl viciously and bare her teeth. But, Georgia quickly backed away and peace was restored.
Growling is actually a good thing that stems from anger. Dogs growl to warn someone to back off before starting a fight. Georgia really hates being moved once she is settled into bed. If either Charlotte or I try to move or push her a little, she will release a long, firm growl. “Don’t mess with me!”
Pay attention to what your dog gets angry about and be respectful of his needs. Usually, you can refrain from disciplining for growls, since he is just letting you or another dog what he needs. But biting is generally unacceptable unless in self-defense against an attack.
Anticipation is in the same category as excitement, arousal, alertness. In other words, something is about to happen. The event a dog anticipates may simply be his dinner or going for a walk. Of course, these are happy things to wait for. But a dog could also notice another dog in heat or simply watch and get ready to chase after a herd of sheep.
How many times have you seen your dog stand up straight and point his ears and tail and stare at something? He is now alert and anticipating that something important or exciting is about to happen. He wants to be ready! Human anticipation can go on for hours, days, months since we tend to plan ahead and think about our future. But like a toddler, a dog lives much more in the moment. Even so, their anticipation can last for a few hours. Think of your dog at home waiting for you to open the door. They may think of you walking in the door off and on during the day, but they do not get really excited until they hear that doorknob turn or the garage door open.
My two dogs usually start bugging me about an hour before dinner time, to remind me that they are thinking about their next meal. Georgia jumps up on my chair and puts her paws on my shoulders when I am sitting at my computer. Charlotte will be a little more assertive and put her paws on my keyboard. and sometimes knock it onto the floor. And if all else fails, they will both sit next to me and just stare until I get the message that they are hungry!
It is hard for me to imagine that dogs get disgusted with anything. After all, they smell other dogs’ butts, sometimes eat poop, and love to stick their noses into sewer grates on walks to the park.
But believe it or not, dogs can be just as disgusted with things as humans. As an example, I tried to give my dog raw kale one time, and you would have thought I was trying to poison her! She turned her head, backed up, and ran out of the kitchen.
Disgust is in the same category as contempt (like for the neighbor’s cat), disdain, aversion, or in the case of kale, revulsion. We don’t always think of dogs having feelings of disgust, but this would be an appropriate reaction for anything that they want to avoid.
Fear is probably one of the core primary emotions that mammals share. To feel fear is key to our basic survival which triggers the flight or fight instinct within us. Fear may escalate from other feelings like worry or anxiousness. It can also be a secondary emotion to anger, which leads us to take some form of strong reaction.
I can always see the worry in my dog Charlotte’s eyes every time I get ready to leave the house. No matter how much I try to reassure her, she always looks concerned. I believe her fear is triggered by her feelings of anxiety from being given up to a kennel by her first human owner. I could be reading too much into it, but every time I try to leave her at the groomer, vet, or even at her favorite doggie daycare for a few hours, she panics.
As I try to hand her off, she will nip and pull at my jacket and try to hold onto my arm with her paws. It breaks my heart, but then she seems to get over it. She eventually enjoys the visit with the other dogs. In time, I think her feelings of abandonment will subside. See more about this in my post Separation Anxiety–Mine and My Dog’s.
As with humans, fear is a very strong emotion. Fear is not rational but it should be identified and acknowledged. New positive experiences can go a lot way to help alleviate some of the fear’s stronghold on your dog (and you).
Nothing warms my heart more than seeing my dogs jumping for joy when I start preparing their meal. Georgia is absolutely jubilant in the morning when I fix breakfast. She runs all over the house tossing around her favorite stuffed squirrel and makes quite a commotion until breakfast is served! (See my resource page Toys R Us for Dogs to see some really cute stuffed brown squirrels!)
Joy is a very strong emotion and is similar to our more muted feelings of happiness, contentment, satisfaction, and relaxation. When my dogs are happy, all seems right in the world!
If you have ever gone to a dog shelter, you know the look of sadness. Especially if you see a dog who has been there for a long time. Many shelters do a fine job protecting and caring for their wards, but there is no place like home. As with humans and all other mammals, dogs want to belong to a pack. Just like us, they want to have a family and experience warmth and affection.
Sadness may be a momentary feeling or it can stem from cumulative stress or loneliness. It can turn into a more pronounced form of depression or resignation due to neglect or lack of contact with caring humans. A long period of sadness can turn into grief following the death of another family pet or a human parent.
The good news is that a dog’s feelings of sadness can eventually be replaced with positive emotions following happier experiences. Yet, in some cases, dogs, like us, may require a little time to heal from challenging events. Given a lot of love and attention, dogs can and usually do bounce back and recover from negative situations.
Being surprised or startled by something keeps dogs on their toes and ready to react if necessary. While sleeping, dogs can wake up in an instant, jump, run, bark, or fight if needed for their survival. One of the reasons that dogs have shorter periods of REM sleep is that they wake up a lot. REM is the deeper part of sleep that allows for dreaming and brain rejuvenation. Humans take a few hours to reach the REM stage, but dogs can drop into it quickly. Dogs need to be able to react quickly to danger or possible attack by another animal. Therefore, they sleep more hours in a day than humans, but they also wake up a lot. So, they need to be able to fall into deep sleep quicker than it takes humans.
I am always amazed at how angelic my dogs look snuggled up next to me on their blanket on the couch. Yet, in the next second, they might be barking and jumping off the couch and charging out the doggie door. They are fast asleep one minute, and in hot pursuit of some critter the next. Talk about being startled–me, more than my dogs!
Sometimes I startle my smaller dog Georgia, who is always underfoot. She follows me around in the kitchen a lot where I might bump into her and step on her paw. Or. other times when we are going for a walk, both dogs will sometimes stop suddenly in front of me. If I am not paying attention, I can stumble and accidentally kick one of them in the bum. Boy, do I get looks of surprise and indignation as they whip their heads around and glare at me!
The Debate Over a Dog’s Ability to Have Complex Emotions–New Scientific Findings
What Scientists Say
Dr. Stanley Coren states in his article in Psychology Today, that dogs have many of the same hormones and chemical processes that humans have. They also have a similar brain structure that allows them to feel the same basic emotions as humans. In fact, dogs can produce oxytocin, which is the hormone in humans responsible for feelings of love. Therefore, Coren concludes that dogs can, in fact, feel many of the same core emotions as humans.
Even when our dogs are just sitting and doing nothing in particular, they may be processing several thoughts and emotions. Read more about this in my post, What Do Dogs Think About When Sitting Quietly?
Dr. Coren stops short of saying that dogs can feel complex emotions such as guilt, shame, and pride. He does not believe that dogs have the cognitive ability to process something that complicated. Yet, he does say that dogs are capable of love. According to Dr. Robert Plutchik, love is a combination of two primary emotions. Love is a combination of joy and trust (acceptance), and guilt equals the primary emotions of joy + fear. Therefore, if dogs can feel all of the 8 primary emotions, I suggest they can also feel many complex emotions. And even Dr. Coren thinks that dogs can feel love, which is not a primary emotion.
Dr. Plutchik also states that humans can experience over 34,000 different emotions. To illustrate the interaction and correlation of these emotions, he has developed a colored chart called The Emotion Wheel, which was posted in an article by Hokuma Karimova, MA in positivepsychology.com on January 29, 2021.
A Heartdogs.com post by Kristina Lotz described some recent social studies of dogs and tests that included MRI imagery, which suggested that dogs possess complex emotions like empathy, jealousy, and depression
In my opinion, if humans can experience up to 34,000 emotions, surely dogs can feel more than 8 or 9.
What Dog Owners Know
How many times have you heard someone say that their dog had all of his winter coat shaved off to keep him cool for the summer and now he is embarrassed? And, I swear that my dog Charlotte feels guilty and remorseful if she poops or pees on the floor by accident. She will come to me, sit close to my leg, and hang her head. Dr. Coren says this is just fear of punishment, but it really looks like guilt to me!
And, how many times has your dog licked you on the face? Read my post about why dogs lick your face. These are like doggie kisses and can be genuine signs of affection.
When my dogs are trying to please me, they bring me their favorite (and slobbery) chewy bone and drop it in my lap. This is probably something they do as part of their pack behavior to interact with the leader of another pack member they are attached to. They know I am not going to chew on it, yet they bring it as a gift. Go figure!
Years ago, I had two female Beagles who were from the same litter, which we raised from pups. When they became a year old, they suddenly began to fight over resources like food, beds, and other things. This is somewhat normal behavior for dogs called resource guarding and is less of an emotion than a survival instinct. We did a lot of fun things together as a family unit and both dogs seemed bonded to us, as well as each other.
Yet, both dogs definitely competed for attention and became very upset when one was petted and the other was not. Perhaps that could also be explained as protecting their (human) resources. But it seemed like downright, ugly, green jealousy to us! Fortunately, we were able to break them from the fighting with the help of a good dog trainer.
I will leave it to you to decide how many emotions your dog may have. But most of us who have canine pals know that our dogs feel and understand a lot more than many scientists give them credit! Be sure to see my post about many of the emotional issues that shelter dogs can experience in my post How to Comfort and Heal a Rescue Dog.