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?).


  1. HAH, I have met many dogs that seem much more capable than humans of "complex" emotions. None of them were Labradors (I love Labradors - don't get me wrong, but "hungry" is not an emotion)

  2. Yes Dr Fawcett, love can be an extremely complex emotion. Is Prof. Coren implying there is a difference between human and canine love? If dogs' love is simple, cats' love is definitely complex! If there was a difference btw human and canine love, how would we describe it? Would similar differences exist within species? In humans, such differences definitely exist - which brings us back to your point of dogs being individuals, too.

    Animals cannot report subjective states verbally, but most (emotionally healthy) humans can tell an animal's subjective state by observing its facial expression, body posture and behaviour. That is how we tell emotions in humans, too. Humans can report subjective states verbally, but these reports are not always reliable. Same goes for emotional questionnaires: too often there are interpretation problems (on both sides), emotional permanence problems, self-knowledge problems, meaning and understanding problems, and deliberate unwillingness to disclose the true emotion. Which means that it's not easy to precisely assess and describe human emotion. How is that situation radically different from assessing canine (and other animal) emotion? Psychology is not a hard science (the way physics is), so when it comes to humans, we usually think it's wise to err on the "safe" side. (Safe, as in avoiding suffering.) When a human looks (acts) ashamed, we assume he/she is ashamed. Or proud. Or guilty. Why should that be different when it comes to assessing animal emotion? Is it because the belief that we are somehow not really animals is so deeply rooted in us that we are not even aware when it starts affecting our essays?


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