Most dog owners (including me at times) are guilty of treating their dogs like they have the same emotional capacity as we do.
You hear many people talking about their dogs as if their dogs are out to show them a lesson or are feeling guilty for something they might have done. This is due to the belief that dogs hold an identical capacity for emotion as we humans do. The term for this is anthopormorphization, giving animals human emotions, intelligence or traits, which they do not have the capacity to feel or do.
Through the development of veterinary science, we have to understand that dogs possess the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. Dogs have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which, in humans, is involved with feeling love and affection for others.
With the same neurology and chemistry that people have, it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions that are similar to ours. However, it is important to not go overboard and immediately assume that the emotional ranges of dogs and humans are the same.
To understand what our dogs feel, we must look at the research done to explore the emotions of humans. There is a lot of research to demonstrate that infants and very young children have a more limited range of emotions. It is over time that the infant’s emotions begin to differentiate and develop. By the time they’ve reached adulthood, their range of emotional experiences is quite broad.
Why is data about children important to understanding the emotional lives of our dogs? Well, researchers have now shown 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 as well as emotions. Because of this, we can look to the human research to see what we might expect of our dogs. Just like a two-year-old child, our dogs clearly have emotions, but many fewer kinds of emotions than that found in an adult human.
From this, the important fact is that we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not 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 yes, love, but the dog does not experience the more complex emotions like guilt, pride, and shame.
Many would argue that they have seen evidence indicating that their dog is capable of guilt. The usual situation recounted is one in which you’ve come home and your dog starts slinking around showing discomfort, and you then find that he has ripped up your favourite pair of shoes. It is natural to conclude that the dog was acting in a way that shows that he is feeling guilty about his behaviour.
Despite appearances, this is not guilt, but simply a display of the more basic emotion of fear. Your dog has learned that when you appear and he has destroyed something in the house, bad things happen to him. What you see is his fear of punishment; he will never feel guilt because he is not capable of experiencing it.
So what does this mean for those of us who live with and interact with dogs? The good news is that you can feel free to be silly around your dog at a house party. He will not feel shame, regardless of how ridiculous you are. He will also not feel pride at taking home the top prize in a dog show or an obedience competition. But your dog can indisputably feel love for you and feel real contentment being with you and that’s really the key of the matter. The more you show them love and positivity in their training, the more you will see their true character. The beautiful byproduct of this is that when they feel comfortable and have that amazing bond with you, training them becomes easier and more fun for both you and your dog.