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Evidence for Canine Emotion

Evidence for Canine Emotion


A hotly debated topic in recent years is whether animals, specifically dogs, feel emotions in a similar manner as humans. For any dog owner, the answer to this question is clear – of course dogs experience emotion.  After all, dogs seem sad when the owner leaves, happy when the owner returns, and jealous when other animals or humans receive attention.  However, for the animal behaviorist, these signs are not necessarily ones of complex emotion, but rather could be indicative of natural selection or learned behavior.  For instance, the argument could be made that when a dog behaves a certain way, such as with a wagging tail and appearance of a smile, he receives more attention than when not displaying these traits, leading to a learned behavior.

How can a researcher study whether or not a dog feels love, sadness, or envy? After all, dogs are unable to talk, and emotions are subjective.  The latest reports in animal behavior and psychology journals have indicated that scientists are beginning to better understand both the psychology and physiology of a dog’s brain.  An exciting development was the realization that dogs have similar neurological hormones and mechanisms as humans, which opened the door to the idea that dogs could chemically produce the same compounds that cause the feelings of love, hate, and jealousy.  The hormone oxytocin, which is known to be produced when humans feel an overwhelming sense of love, such as when a mother looks at her child, was recently discovered in dogs.  Interestingly, researchers placed well-behaved dogs inside an MRI machine and showed the dogs photos of their owners, as well as strangers.  When the dog saw a familiar face, the oxytocin receptors of the brain were activated.  This same response was not observed in response to photos of strangers.

However, just because a dog has the same physiological response as a human does not indicate the feelings are felt in the same manner. Some animal behaviorists argue that while some species have evolved through natural selection where only the strongest individuals survive, dogs have evolved such that only the best domesticated individuals survive.  For instance, in order to gain the most food, shelter, and attention, the dog that displays the most loving of reactions would have the best chance for survival.  The most convincing argument these scientists have made is that most dogs will “love” anyone, whereas most humans will not.

Natural selection aside, there is still a significant amount of evidence to indicate dogs experience other emotions, as well, such as contempt, guilt, pride, and disgust. Of course everyone has seen the “dog shaming” photos where a guilty-looking dog is standing next to a destroyed couch or empty cookie tray.  Again, researchers argue whether a dog truly feels guilt similarly to a human, or if appearing guilty is simply a learned device that can lessen the dog’s punishment.  Regardless, this is an exciting time for animal behaviorists and psychologists, because questions regarding feeling and emotion are finally beginning to be taken seriously, and the technology exists to help find answers.

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