We’ve all seen those videos of dogs barking after their owners walk out of the room. Maybe you’ve seen videos of dogs acting ‘guilty’ because they were caught eating the cat treats. What’s actually happening in your dog’s mind? Do dogs have emotions like we do?
Do Dogs Have Emotions?
Anyone that has ever owned a dog will tell you, they have emotions. While they can’t verbalize what emotion they are feeling, they can still communicate how they are feeling through their behavior and body language. Certain behaviors are correlated with being happy, relaxed, scared, stressed, and even painful. By understanding your dog’s body language you can better understand your dog’s emotional state.
Sadness vs. Separation Anxiety
Some dog owners may think their dog is sad when they leave the home. In the videos where people leave a room and leave their dog alone, the dog may start to whine, bark, and howl. They may paw and scratch at the door the person left through.
They may even begin to pace back and forth, looking out windows and panting. An owner may see their dog acting this way and think their dog is sad, but these are all signs of stress and separation anxiety. While we can’t definitively say, ‘this dog is sad because his owner left’, thanks to research done by dog behaviorists, we can say with certainty ‘this dog is stressed’.
Shame & Guilt vs. Submissive Behavior
Similarly, you may catch your dog doing something they know they aren’t allowed to do and think they’re hanging their head in guilt. Dogs in so-called ‘dog shaming’ videos seem to be in a cowering stance that we, the viewer, perceive as shame. They may be avoiding their owner, either by averting their gaze or by actually trying to get away. They may even be submissively laying down on their side or back.
You may watch these videos and think, ‘that dog knows he did something wrong and is feeling guilty because he got caught’. The dogs in these videos, though, are all showing behavioral cues of a dog being submissive. We may think the dog is trying to avoid us out of guilt and shame, but thanks to behavioral research we know that dogs can actually read our own body language. Dogs know when we are upset and will be submissive to try and appease us. This is a normal behavior in dogs and doesn’t necessarily mean a dog has been abused in the past.
Fear vs. Stubbornness
Not all dogs enjoy going to the vet—some are downright terrified of it. These dogs will try to make themselves as small as possible, cowering and hanging their head low. They may try to hide behind you or even try to run away when the vet or technician approaches them. These are relatively easy cues to pick up on. What about the dogs that hide in the corner and then growl and snap when you try to get them onto the exam table? You may get frustrated with your dog for acting silly and stubborn, but he’s actually acting out of fear. Remember, in a stressful situation animals will resort to fight or flight.
If a dog tries to flee and they can’t get away, they will resort to fight. Generally, these patients do worse with ‘strong arming’ or ‘man-handling’ just to get done whatever needs to get done. There are veterinarians and veterinary technicians that are certified fear free and/or low stress handling certified. These professionals know how to approach a dog that is fearful of the vet to not only get everything done, but to do it in a way that is the least stressful on your dog. While more and more professionals are learning more about fear free and low stress handling, not all professionals may be proficient at it yet. You know your dog best, so don’t be afraid to advocate if they are terrified at the vet and you think the vet or tech is being too forceful.
Grumpiness vs. Pain
If you’ve ever taken your dog in for surgery at their vet, they may have been sent home with medication to give ‘as needed’ for pain. This is all fine and good, but how do you know when your dog is in pain?
Contrary to some beliefs, dogs that are in pain may not actually cry out or vocalize. Signs of pain in dogs will be more subtle. These can include changes in their eating and drinking habits or not being as social as they once were. If your dog suddenly loses interest in their favorite food or if they suddenly don’t get overjoyed with house guests, they may actually be feeling pain and not just being grumpy. If you notice either of these, make an appointment with your vet to make sure they aren’t hiding anything from you.
Do dogs feel emotions? Yes, undeniably. The trick is to be able to read your dog’s body language and behavioral cues to know just what emotion they are feeling at any given time. We, as humans, like to anthropomorphize our own emotions about situations onto our dogs, but if you stick with the basics of dog body language, you will be able to know how your dog is feeling and what they are trying to communicate to you.