Do Dogs Have Emotions Like Humans?

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Do you ever wonder if dogs have emotions like humans? Do you sometimes stop to consider what motivates dogs? Are their emotions and motivations similar to ours?

This is the short techie answer to those questions: Applied Behavior Analysis states that dogs’ behavior is learned through external stimuli; furthermore, it’s impossible for us to know what dogs are thinking since we can’t directly communicate with them. Comparisons between dogs and humans are futile they would say. In short, applied behaviorists believe dogs don’t think for themselves but rather have their behaviors and motivations shaped from external experiences.

 

“Possibly the most important, and least scientific, reason I feel that animals…can feel human-like emotions is…”

 

And now for my answer to those questions: First, it feels like I’ve read all the animal behavior books, attended all the seminars and have taken more courses than I can remember on the subject. I understand what the “techie” camp is saying above; however, after personally working with thousands of dogs I feel very strongly that dogs have emotions that can be profoundly similar to humans. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe this:

  • The chemicals (i.e., neurotransmitters and hormones) that make up a dog’s cognitive (i.e., thinking) process are similar to those in humans. These include serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, cortisol and epinephrine; all of these, and others, are shared by humans and dogs.

  • Canine body language closely mirrors humans in many ways. The more I learn about and teach others about dog body language, the more I realize how closely it parallels human body language. If you’d like to learn more about this, view my free video Understanding Dog Body Language.

  • The psychopharmaceutical medications used with dogs (e.g., Prozac, Xanax, etc.) are exactly the same medications used to treat similar issues in humans. In fact, virtually all of them can be purchased from your local Walgreens, Walmart or CVS with a prescription from your veterinarian.

  • Many of the significant behavior issues that dogs are diagnosed with are also found in humans such as generalized anxiety, depression, compulsive disorders, hyperactivity, separation anxiety, etc.

  • While dogs’ brains are smaller than humans, the anatomy of their brains is very similar to ours.

  • Techniques used to encourage behavior changes in dogs are similar, at least at a foundational level, to those used in humans. These include operant and classical conditioning that are seen in both canine behavior consulting and human psychology.

  • Dogs that are exposed to significant levels of ongoing punishment share the same long-term behavioral issues that humans endure such as chronic anxiety and hyper-vigilance. The longer they are exposed, the longer it takes to work through the resultant behavioral issues.

  • Dogs express jealousy just like humans do. We call it resource guarding in the animal behavior world, but it looks a whole lot like plain old human jealousy.

Possibly the most important, and least scientific, reason I feel that animals can feel human-like emotions is from my own personal experiences with canines. It’s just impossible in my opinion to work around dogs and not see and feel the emotions that so closely mirror ours.

What does this mean for the average dog owner? It means that dogs are to be treated as feeling animals. They have social needs (primarily with their human families) as well as needs for physical comfort and safety - just like people do. If we acknowledge this reality, we become better dog owners while also greatly improving the relationship we have with our dogs.