You’ve probably heard me at the front desk telling dogs to “make good choices”, but is that really possible? Are dogs able to reason and make decisions or do they simply act out of instinct? Can dogs feel emotions like guilt and shame? Of course we love to believe that our dogs feel all the emotions we do, that’s what makes them so great and why we love them so much.
Of course when they wag their tail when we get home it’s because they missed us SO much and they’re thrilled we’re home. They look guilty when they have done something they aren’t supposed to and what about all those Dog shaming photos? Could they be inaccurate? Say it ain’t so!
What we know about dog emotions:
It’s debatable-the topic of dog emotions is continually being debated in the academic world. Scientists, Psychologists, Behaviorists all have different views and are doing experiments to determine exactly which emotions dog feel. The current popular opinion is that dogs feel the same emotions as about a 2 year old human, so the basic emotions like joy, anger, fear, love, etc. They don’t have the ability to reason and feel more complex emotions such as guilt and shame.
What does that mean for us?
I know I’ve just ruined your life by telling you dogs don’t feel shame, who doesn’t love to look at dog shaming photos? They are hilarious, and let’s face it, we delight in other people’s misery…because we’ve all had chewed shoes, puddles of pee in the hallway you didn’t notice until it was too late and a random variety of foods stolen and eaten right under our noses and when you see someone else going through it you think, “better them than me”. Dogs actually don’t feel shame, but keep the photos coming anyway!
What do their actions tell us about their emotions?
Everyone has seen the “guilty dog” face, you know they did something wrong “and they know they did something wrong”. “He was mad at me for leaving him so he ate my shoes”. Unfortunately, that’s not true. He ate your shoes because he was bored, and you left him unattended for an extended amount of time. If thinking he missed you makes the replacement of your favorite shoes easier, we understand. But in your heart of hearts you must know your dog doesn’t have the ability to reason to “get back at you”. He was simply acting on one of his basic emotions and your shoes were the victims.
Do dogs often look guilty? Yes. But the emotion they are really feeling isn’t guilt at all, it’s fear. Even if you don’t yell at your dog, your body language changes when you’re upset and since communication is 93% non-verbal, we may not be screaming at our dogs, but our body language is. Your dog is responding to your body language, the tone in your voice, your body posture, and movements. You are angry, so he’s feeling fear, not guilt. He doesn’t remember what happened a minute ago let alone 3 hours ago. Dogs live in the moment.
What’s smell got to do with it?
Dogs are operated by their senses and nothing is greater than there sense of smell. Dogs have up to 220 million scent receptors while us measly humans only have 5 million. Think of all the smells you’re accustomed to and how they bring back memories and make you happy, or sad. We experience emotions that we derive from our senses and so do dogs. This is why food is a great motivator for dogs in training, their sense of smell is greater than their fear and will activate their brain into seeking mode, instead of fear mode.
Fear is a very hard emotion for dogs to forget and can take a lot longer to overcome than the other emotions. If you’re lucky, you can overcome a dogs fear by activating one of their other emotions and senses and get them thinking. Training is great for fearful dogs, it gets them out of their fearful state and builds confidence.
For me, this knowledge only helps me be a more effective trainer, it doesn’t affect my talking to the dogs, telling them things they can’t understand, like to make good choices, I talk to the dogs for my own benefit. I love to think they can understand me and are making good choices because they want to, life is hard enough, don’t take my doggy dream world away from me! Just remember that in reality your dogs don’t speak English, don’t know what you’re thinking and can’t reason. They live in the moment and nothing else matters, so make each moment count!