Dogs and Emotions…

There has been debate as to whether or not dogs can actually feel emotions. Older schools of scientific thought have refuted the notion. Now, however, scientists and behaviorists are beginning to undertake studies to prove otherwise. Personally, I have no doubt that dogs can feel a full range of emotions including jealousy, sadness, fear, and joy. I can see the joy in my dog’s body language every day when I return home. Whether I am gone for ten minutes or a few hours, I always return home to my dog’s exuberant greeting of tail wagging and his playful dance which lets me know that he is truly happy in that moment.

On the other end of that emotional spectrum, I once heard a story about a dog that howled for days after its owner died. Dogs that experience severe forms of separation anxiety often act out their anxiety by displaying obsessive behaviors such as constant licking or chewing household objects to shreds. Most behaviorists and scientists agree that dogs are capable of experiencing both fear and pain, but I feel certain that the realm of emotions goes far beyond just that.

Researchers have found that when emotions are present there is a release of certain brain chemicals like dopamine. For instance, when animals are scared their brains produce chemicals that make them alert and ready to flee, while happy thoughts cause the brain to release chemicals that soothe and calm.

According to ehow:

Wikepedia states, “An animal may make certain movements and sounds, and show certain brain and chemical signals when its body is damaged in a particular way”.

Acclaimed author and veterinarian, Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, shares the following regarding dogs and their emotions, “They can be happy or sad, fearful or depressed, angry or elated. The real question to be answered is, ‘Do dogs have secondary emotions, like jealousy or guilt?’ These are more sophisticated emotions that necessitate concepts of self and others. I believe that dogs are capable at even secondary emotions and can’t imagine why anyone would think otherwise. If a dog insists on wedging itself between its owners when they try to kiss or cuddle, it appears like jealousy to me. When a dog that has never been punished hangs its head in shame when its owner finds an accident on the carpet, I call it guilt. When a dog looks adoringly at its puppies or its owner, and is inseparable from them, I call it love. And when a dog looks depressed and stops eating following the loss of a loved one, I call it sorrow”.

Below are a few suggestions that I believe may offer you and your dog a better emotional state:

Separation anxiety can result in dogs whose early years of bonding have been interrupted, a dog that is left all alone for one too many hours, and/or when a dog’s self confidence has been lost. When departing from your home and your dog, never show any sign of anxiety or sympathy. You want to display to your dog that there is nothing to be upset about. Leave the t.v. or radio on as the sounds of humans talking can be of some comfort. Leave treats around the house for a game of hide and seek or offer your dog a chew toy or a stuffed Kong for her entertainment. When you return home, try to remain low key. Do not show signs of exuberance, yet act as if you were never gone in the first place.

To help your dog overcome signs of anxiety or depression, take her out of her element. A local park or even a new path for your daily walk will do wonders to distract your dog and bring her out of his rut.

What human doesn’t feel the physiological and psychological benefit of touch? The same truth applies to your dog. A friendly pat, a scratch behind the ears or even a doggie massage can do wonders.

Many dogs feel overwhelming fear during thunder storms. Some dogs become statically charged during storms, receiving static shocks that may be very painful. Comforting your dog during these occasions may make your dog’s phobia even worse. The best bet is to speak with your veterinarian about anxiety medication. In addition, offer your dog a dark space close to you where he can feel some form of protection from the outdoor storm. Some people find that their dog feels comforted by a new product called the storm defender cape. Their product can be found at the website

If your dog has a phobia of visiting the vet, consider a vet that makes house calls.

I know many people who will reject the idea that animals can feel emotions similar to humans but scientific evidence is increasingly providing support for such ideas. Many animals, such as the bald eagle, wolves and even termites, form lifelong bonds with their mates and, therefore, could teach the human species much about the virtue of loyalty. If 98% of human DNA is identical to that of primates and the appearance of the dolphin’s brain looks very similar to the structure of the human brain, one has to wonder what we can learn about the emotions of not only dogs but all animals.


Photo credit: Jimmy Brown

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