If you've ever uttered phrases like "You hurt his feelings," or "She's hiding right now because she's embarrassed," you've likely spent a good amount of time attempting to decipher your dog's emotions. While assuming that your canine friend is alone with himself because he's angry at you for refusing a treat may be little more than classic anthropomorphism, studies have shown that dogs can feel emotions. The exact emotions a dog is capable of feeling, however, is limited to a select few, and because measuring canine emotions is no easy feat, science still may not have all the answers.
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Measuring emotions in dogs
It's sometimes hard enough to recognize what ourselves or the people closest to us may be feeling, and it's, unsurprisingly, even harder to tell what our dogs are feeling. Often, dog owners look to body language and dog behavior cues to decipher our dogs' emotional lives, which can say a lot, but who can be sure that we're reading signals correctly? One study, shared by National Geographic, used MRI scanners to measure how dogs respond to different things, like food and praise. The study showed that when presented with stimuli that elicit positive emotions in humans, the caudate nucleus, the part of the brain that is believed to hold the most pleasure neurotransmitters, lit up, indicating that happiness can be experienced by canines.
Additionally, a 2017 study published in Animal Sentience, revealed that in addition to happiness, dogs may also be capable of feeling emotions like empathy. In both studies, the emotions expressed by the canines were done so in relation to the perceived emotions, seen in facial expression and body language, in others, specifically, humans. Outside of an MRI machine or closed study space, dog guardians can also use their pets' body language to decipher how they may be feeling in a given moment.
Common emotions observed in dogs
In most cases, dogs are believed to be capable of experiencing many of the same emotions as a two-year-old child. Canine brains, the largest of which are about the size of a lemon, are able to elicit a range of emotions, the earliest of which include excitement and arousal, contentment, stress and even disgust, according to Psychology Today. Additionally, feelings such as fear, joy, and anger can also be witnessed in dogs, as do obvious emotions like love and affection, and suspicion and shyness. These same emotions are seen in children under about three years old, and many humans go on to develop more complex emotions, like guilt, pride, or shame, a dog's capacity for emotional learning stops before it gets to that place.
Dogs and human emotion
While dogs may not be able to experience complex human emotions, many of them do possess a certain canine emotional intelligence which makes them ideal for offering support to their human counterparts. In recent years, emotional support dogs have become more and more common, although they must be prescribed to a person by a mental health professional, according to the American Kennel Club. While some dogs may mimic or match the emotions displayed by their human counterparts, emotional support dogs are generally of a laid back and calm demeanor and provide a sense of security for their guardians, especially in times of anxiety, sadness, and overwhelm. Emotional support dogs are not trained service animals, although basic training is recommended to allow them greater access to public spaces.
Dogs certainly are capable of experiencing and displaying emotion, although their capacity for emotions is limited to those seen in very young children. Complex emotions, like guilt or contempt, have not yet been measured in canines, though research is fairly limited at this time. Body language in canines is the easiest way to measure emotions in day to day life, with common cues like tail wagging to represent excitement, and raised hackles to represent defensiveness or suspicion, among many seen in dogs.