This is often an obvious answer to me – obviously when I smile, my dogs smile. When I laugh, my dogs laugh. When I cry.. no? Not how it works? I dug into this question of ‘does my dog have feelings just like I do’ in a deeper context. The journal Animal Sentience published an article on “Canine emotions as seen through human social cognition” that provided some answers to what the heck my dog is thinking about besides, well, me.
We cannot prove that dogs have emotions like humans – but this fact can’t even be proven about humans. The only thing we can do is utilize our way of thinking based on similar premises. Dogs (sometimes) come to us when they are called. They can listen to social ques and respond to facial expressions and behave differently depending on the emotional situation they are in. Just like humans, dogs have a relatively large prefrontal cortex and they have an area in their brain that is specialized for face perception.
By default, our human social cognition affects what we think our dog is feeling.
A dog’s emotional state is determined by what a human thinks their dog is feeling – through their own lens, essentially. I mean it makes sense – I can’t say I haven’t projected feelings onto my pups before. There have also been studies done where human are fairly consistent in understanding dogs emotional behavior based on the situation. Friendly pup faces are the easiest to recognize by humans and aggression/being scared are more difficult to identify. These percentages can also shift based on how much the human has been around dogs previously. I am pretty sure when I know my dog is asking for a pup-achino through the Starbucks drive-through..
Our pups brains seem to be wired for having feeling capabilities.
The basic emotional states like happiness or anger on human’s facial expression patterns look to be both adaptable and universal. Based on the way our brains work, it looks like dogs would also have the capacity for these emotions in their brains. Dogs brains includes all the major parts that support basic emotional functions. They have a limbic system, amygdala, and a relatively big prefrontal cortex that is not directly associated with motor functions. There are also definite differences to take note of. For example, the associations of the brain (so areas not directly responsible for sensory-related functions) covers ~29% of the dogs neocortex but covers 85% of the human neocortex associations.
So when my dog looks at me in guilt, do they know it?
Guilt is attributed to dogs a a ton (hello, guilty dog memes) but the way their brain is set-up doesn’t make as much sense as I think they act sometimes. There was a study where dogs disobeyed their owners and ate the “forbidden treat” – so maybe the sandwich on the table. By manipulating the owners belief about what happened in the situation, their gestures were not different whether they listen to their parents or not. But the common gestures associated with dog guilt (like one dog pointing that the other dog did it or avoid eye contact) was what the pups displayed when they were getting in trouble. So once the dog learns that there can be a negative association with one of their actions they can show this behavior before they actually steal the cookie.
And, I learned a new word – dogs qualia – what it feels like to be a dog. While I only know for sure my dog mom qualia, there was definitely some substantial and interesting insight into how us humans can perceive the dogs brain being the total emo we know they can be.