What Is Your Dog Thinking?

A psychological guide to your dog’s dreams, emotions, 
interests, and 
tail-wagging 
body language.

 

Your canine companion slumbers by your side, but is she dreaming of you? Does she feel guilty about stealing your steak off the kitchen counter and eating it for dinner? What is she trying to say with that annoying bark? Does she like watching TV?

After decades of research, neuroscientists have begun to answer such questions, giving us access to the once-secret inner lives of our canine companions and even translating their barks and wags so mere humans can comprehend them.

At the forefront of this effort is Stanley Coren, a behaviorist from the University of British Columbia, who draws on decades of research to explore the psychological motivations behind dogs’ everyday behaviors, as well as what science says about their barks, thoughts, and dreams.

Do Dogs Experience the Same Emotions as People?

Dogs have the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. They have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which in humans is involved with love and affection. So it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions similar to ours. However, it is important not to go overboard: The mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is 2 to 2½ years old. A child that age clearly has emotions, but not all possible emotions, since many emerge later in the path to adulthood.

Dogs go through their developmental stages much more quickly than humans do, attaining their full emotional range by the time they are 4 to 6 months old. Much like a human toddler, a dog has the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress, and even love. A dog does not have, and will not develop, more complex emotions, like guilt, pride, contempt, and shame, however.

You might argue that your dog has shown evidence of feeling guilt. In the usual scenario, you come home and your dog starts slinking around and showing discomfort, and you then find his smelly brown deposit on your kitchen floor. It is natural to conclude that the dog’s actions show a sense of guilt about its transgression. However, this is simply the more basic emotion of fear. The dog has learned that when you appear and his droppings are visible on the floor, bad things happen to him. What you see is the dog’s fear of punishment; he will never feel guilt. He will also never feel shame, so feel free to dress him in that ridiculous party costume.

 

Continue reading at Discovery Magazine.

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