Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Canine emotions - what do we know?

(c) Dr Anne Fawcett
Are dogs capable of feeling complex emotions? 

According to psychology Professor Stanley Coren in his recent essay on canine emotions (you can read it here), dogs are more or less emotionally equivalent to a two-year-old child.

That is, your dog is capable of feeling excitement, arousal, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion, shyness, affection and "love" (sometimes I think the definition of the latter varies wildly between people)...BUT...

He argues that, based on current research, it is unlikely that dogs feel more complex emotions: guilt, pride and shame (and - since I am not a psychologist - I'd love to know how love is not a complex emotion?)

Having interacted with many dogs, I'm not sure I agree...and of course we have to be so careful about making generalisations as there is huge variation between individual dogs (and two year old humans!).

Ecology Professor Mark Bekoff wrote an interesting response (you can read it here)

While this conclusion is extremely interesting, it remains a hypothesis in that the necessary research has not really been done. So, until the detailed research is conducted we don't really know "that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old."
Of course delving into the emotional world of animals via cleverly designed experiments will only ever take us so far, and raises the problem of other minds, exacerbated by the fact that animals cannot report subjective states.  (It does raise the related, important question though: how much evidence of subjective states do we need before we treat animals as sentient beings?).