You’ve probably seen videos or heard stories about owners coming home to a torn-up trash bag, and a “guilty” looking dog. These videos are all over social media and usually attract a lot of attention from other dog owners claiming that their dogs also act guilty when they are caught doing something bad. But how true is this? To find out, we have to look at a dog’s brain and how it evolved.
Dog Brains Vs. Human Brains
Dogs are incredibly social animals and have closely evolved next to humans for thousands of years. This close relationship has affected the domestic dog’s emotions as well as our own. We tend to anthropomorphize animals, meaning we attach our own human emotions to our animals. All the emotions we think our dog experiences are filtered through our own perception, making it incredibly difficult to determine what the dog is feeling and what we think they are feeling. It’s even more difficult considering that dogs can’t exactly tell us how they are feeling, so we must look inside its brain to infer.
While dog and humans are clearly very different, our brains actually share the same structures and hormones that produce emotions. However, this does not mean that dogs share the entire range of emotions that adult humans do. Researchers have collectively agreed that dog minds are about the same as a 2-year-old human child cognitively and emotionally. Our emotions develop with age, so we can see which emotions dogs likely feel based on what emotions a 2 year old can feel.
So What Emotions DO Dogs Experience?
Emotions like fear, joy, disgust, distress and anger are all felt by dogs. These emotions have been adapted by evolution to survive. Humans, of course, also feel these emotions, and facial expression of these are pretty universal across the world. For example, most humans smile when happy and frown when angry or upset. Dogs not only mimic these facial expressions, but can recognize them on their human’s faces too!
Where dogs and humans differ is our secondary emotions. These emotions require a sense of self awareness, and current research shows that a dog’s self awareness is not high enough for secondary emotions. All this to say that dogs do not feel guilt, shame, pride or contempt.
Yes, you read that right: your dog does not feel what we define as guilt! So what is your dog thinking when you find him doing something they shouldn’t? That is the simpler emotion of fear. Your dog has learned from previous interactions that you do not like it when they dig in the trash, so they are afraid of the punishment you may give when you come home. The chart below shows the comparison of a child and dog’s development.
What Does This Mean as a Dog Owner?
Just because our dogs don’t feel certain emotions, they still feel love, affection, joy, fear and anger. As dog owners, it is our job to ensure that your dog lives a happy and healthy life. Knowing how dogs perceive the world helps us have a better understanding of why our dogs behave the way they do. When we understand our dogs, we can better shape their behavior and strengthen the bond we share.