Joy, sorrow, love, anger, and fear – no dog owner will doubt that dogs can feel such feelings just like humans. But what about social emotions like shame, guilt, or contempt that require a complex sense of morality?
Scientists have long agreed that dogs and other animals have no feelings and only (re)act without feeling anything. This was partly because research in earlier centuries was funded by the Church, which had a far more significant influence than today. It was considered blasphemy to ascribe emotions and thus a soul to any living being other than humans. Times have changed in the meantime, and it is taken for granted that our beloved four-legged friends also have feelings.
Dogs have feelings like a two-year-old child.
A dog’s intelligence roughly corresponds to that of a small child aged two to three years. The situation is similar to the emotions: Dogs remain with their mental and thus also emotional development, whereas human children are in the middle of the third year of life. Dogs are therefore denied feelings that people only develop afterward. Psychology professor and dog expert Stanley Coren described this in “Psychology Today.”
However, dogs go through their mental development faster than human children because they grow more quickly and age faster than their two-legged companions. After four to six months – depending on the breed of dog – the formation of the range of emotions in the animals is complete. The first emotion that newborn puppies feel is excitement. You either feel calm and balanced or excited and nervous. Shortly after that, negative and positive feelings emerge, initially grief and suffering, contentment and disgust.
The little puppies feel fear a little later, followed by anger and fury. Only after that do they begin to feel joy; before that, they only think of satisfaction when their grief has been assuaged, for example, through hunger or thirst. Shortly after that, they develop the capacity for distrust, caution, and restraint. Eventually, the puppies learn to feel love and affection, culminating in their emotional development.
Dogs are not familiar with complex social emotions such as shame.
In young children, however, the development of the range of emotions continues; it only ends between four and five. Until then, children gradually get more and more aware of the complex social rules in interpersonal relationships and develop emotions related to these social norms – this is important for us humans to organize our coexistence in a human community. Dogs have different social models from each other and don’t need people’s social feelings.
If human children violate social norms and are scolded, they initially feel shame; later, guilt is added in the fourth year of life. If they follow the rules and are praised for it, they feel proud. By the age of five, children can also feel contempt, for example, when someone else has violated social norms.
Avoid misunderstandings: Don’t humanize dog feelings.
Humans tend to infer others from ourselves and humanize dogs, for example. This can lead to misunderstandings that prevent appropriate parenting measures from being applied to undesirable behavior. A classic example is when you come home and see that your dog has pooped in the corner and is staring at you wide-eyed or leaning against the wall and avoiding eye contact. “He’s ashamed because he knows what he’s done” or “He feels guilty and has a guilty conscience” are common human interpretations of dog body language.
However, dogs do not know guilt, shame, or a guilty conscience. Instead, your four-legged friend is scared at this moment because you scold him or because he has noticed that you always raise your voice when you come home and see a dog poo in the corner. There is no point in punishing your dog long after the misbehavior has passed. He cannot link your punishment to his act and only realizes that you are angry and aggressive. It is better to get rid of the dog excrement without comment and look for why your dog is not housebroken. This principle also applies to other misconduct, such as aggression, excessive howling, barking, or “destructiveness.”