Emotions drive behavior, so understanding dog emotions is key to our relationships with our furry friends.
But can dogs cry? Do dogs have moods? Modern studies reveal dogs enjoy rich emotional lives. By investing in dogs’ emotional health, we can greatly improve their quality of life. Tune in to your dog’s emotions and emotion signs. Tuning in helps you understand their behavior, better support their needs and help them cope, when necessary.
What emotions do dogs feel?
Recent research in canine cognitive science confirms what most dog lovers already know: dogs have feelings. But just how closely are dogs’ emotions related to ours? Dog’s brains are structured similarly, have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes when experiencing emotions. But a dog’s cerebral cortex is five times smaller. So, although dogs have remarkable cognitive capabilities, their emotions are more raw, untainted by human-like analysis. A dog’s emotional life is often compared to that of a 2½ year old child.
Dog emotions include:
So, what about emotions like guilt, shame, revenge and pride? No. These more complex dog emotions require context and synthesis, and current evidence doesn’t suggest dogs’ emotions reach this far. A classic example is soiling the floor and shredding couch pillows while you’re gone. You might think your dog is getting back at you for leaving him alone. However, the emotions are more likely loneliness, fear or anxiety — not revenge.
But do dogs experience more intense emotional responses like trauma? Certified canine behaviorist Andrew Hale says, Yes, and it may present long-term challenges for them, as it does us. Simply put, trauma is when a negative experience overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope. And given how often we put dogs into situations they can’t cope with or escape from, Andrew says it’s likely many dogs will experience trauma to some extent. Furthermore, he says most experts in behavioral science now agree dogs experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Dr.
Lori Teller, from the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, says dogs can suffer from PTSD, and the symptoms in dogs parallel those in humans: chronic anxiety, hypervigilance, avoidance of certain people, places or situations, sleep disturbance, fear of being alone, decreased interest in favorite activities or aggression.
Dogs live in the moment, and they tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves; often what you see is what you get. And since dogs are nonverbal communicators, decoding your dog’s feelings requires observation and context. Overall, tight, tense body parts mean a tense, stressed (or even angry) dog. Loose body parts tend to indicate ease and calm. Always consider the whole dog and not just one body part.
Some emotional signals are:
- Fearful: Ears pinned back; tail between legs; cowering; averted gaze; whale eye
- Anxious: Lip licking, shaking off, panting, pacing, drooling; averted gaze; destructive behavior; restlessness; whale eye
- Happy: Soft eyes; open mouth (a doggy smile), possibly tongue lolling to the side; loose low- to mid-range wagging tail
- Joy/playfulness: Butt in the air and forepaws bent on the ground (play bow); full-body wag
- Anger/aggression: Ears pricked forward; tail high and stiff/wagging; puckered mouth; growl; hard stare
- Calm: Relaxed body, paws possibly crossed; soft eyes; ears in neutral position
Check out this popular dog emotions chart by renowned illustrator and dog body language guru, Lili Chin.
Also factor in context. Determine the role of the situation and environment in your dog’s behavior. Andrew says we don’t need to know exactly what a dog’s thinking or feeling to recognize a dog is feeling something that drives his behavior and ability to process what’s going on around him.
Can dogs cry?
A new Japanese study found dogs do secrete tears when reunited with their primary guardians as opposed to other familiar humans. Although findings in the small study weren’t conclusive, it provides pathways for more exciting research like examining the social function of dogs’ tears and whether dogs’ reactions are similar when reunited with doggy pals.
And the eyes have it — research shows eye contact between dogs and humans creates a comparable and reciprocal hormonal response in the levels of oxytocin, or the “love hormone,” as that of a human mother and baby. So, eye contact is closely tied to our bond with our dogs and because dogs’ domestication involved their ability to communicate through eye contact, the study hypothesizes dog tears may play a role in soliciting attention from humans, much like a child does.
Do dogs have moods?
Feelings arise from emotions, and moods are the resulting mixture of feelings. While dogs may become what humans might label moody in their adolescent years, dogs generally aren’t “moody” by definition. This is because dogs usually aren’t unpredictable or prone to sudden gloominess. If you suspect moodiness, pay closer attention to key indicators of his emotions or check to see if he’s in discomfort or pain. And we might label a dog as having “mood swings,” but that’s more likely a result of dogs living in the present and more about stimuli than being moody.
Research has found dogs do tend to take on the personalities and attitudes of their primary caregivers. A large study out of Michigan State found dogs do adjust according to our change in attitudes and emotions and tend to mirror our traits. For example, a high-strung person might have an excitable dog or an anxious person might have a more fearful dog. A key takeaway from the study is that dogs respond to us. How we live our lives influences how our dogs experience and live theirs.
The perils of ignoring dogs’ emotions
We’ve popularized the term “Velcro dog,” but what if we reevaluated behaviors like pawing at us, following us around or sitting on our feet as connection-seeking behaviors instead of attention-seeking? Or is our dog trying to tell us something? Suddenly the context becomes much more meaningful and worthy of investigation. Ignoring dogs’ emotions, or worse, punishing them, not only erodes the dog-human bond, but also can potentially create or exacerbate behavior issues.
Andrew says the more elevated the nervous system, the harder it is to be able to process what’s going on, which can easily leave your dog feeling overwhelmed. Often the environment, especially the social environment, moves too fast for dogs to process information safely, so a stress response is likely. Slow things down and allow your dog time to process what’s happening, and the space to feel safe, so your dog is more likely to cope. Learn how your dog needs to use space to feel safe and always provide for that, especially when attached to you via a leash, says Andrew.
Labels like stubborn, diva or dramatic aren’t helpful. For example, dogs aren’t usually being stubborn but are more likely attempting to communicate such feelings as:
- I don’t feel well
- I’m tired
- I don’t understand what’s being asked of me
- I need better motivation
- I’m not comfortable with this
- I’m stressed
- I don’t like this
- I’m scared.
Instead of labeling, attempt to uncover what’s really behind the behavior.
Andrew says to truly help a dog and identify their personal care and support needs, you need to learn more about their emotional experience. A key principle in supporting others is understanding the need for relief. Stress is the root cause of many behavior challenges, so a deeper understanding of what your dog is feeling will help him find that relief, rather than just getting your dog to change behavior to something you want or find more appropriate.
Emotional support for dogs
Next time Fido embarrasses you by barking and lunging at another dog in public, upsets you by tearing up couch cushions while you’re away or frustrates you by jumping on guests, stop for a moment and think about your reactions. Emotions drive your behavior, too. Instead of reacting, try to support Fido in his efforts to communicate his emotions. See how you can relieve his fear of other dogs, loneliness or anxiety while you’re away and his joy or anxiety at seeing other people.
Ultimately, dogs want to feel safe, and Andrew says time and space are everything when supporting a more sensitive or stressed dog. Give your dog time to process information, to take it all in. And allow for space, or movement through their environment, and time for social processing. When we allow them opportunities to think and process, dogs tend to self-regulate.
Seeking to understand your dog’s emotions forces you to let go of expectations and prescriptions for behavior and focus instead on compassion first, and training second. And when you value your dog’s needs rather than focus on what he “should” be doing, you may be surprised to find that positive behavior follows naturally. Acknowledging dogs’ emotions helps you help them feel safe. And when dogs feel good, they can live their best lives.