Dogs are so much a part of the family, it’s easy to ascribe human emotions to them. But what is really behind those supportive nuzzles and knowing looks?
There is a lot we still don’t know about the emotional capacity of our canine friends, but most experts agree that dogs do experience some degree of emotional contagion – the physiological phenomenon that causes us to “catch” the emotions of others. In the same way that the joy and sadness of the people around us can cause us to feel those feelings in our own bodies, dog psychologists believe that our pets may share in many of our emotional experiences.
Complex emotions like remorse and embarrassment require a certain level of brain development, lived experience, and language skills – that’s why most humans don’t experience them until later in life. More basic emotions, however, are probably part of your earliest memories.
Most scientists agree that adult dogs have an emotional capacity similar to that of a two to two-and-a-half-year-old toddler. This means that our pups are probably capable of feelings like:
Though it may be a bit of a stretch to believe that your furbaby experiences jealousy when he picks up the scent of another dog on your hands, most pet parents can easily read these basic emotions in their pup’s body language.
The ability to empathize with humans may be a biological adaptation in modern dogs.
There is a reason why “puppy eyes” are so irresistible – those long dreamy stares trigger the release of oxytocin (the love hormone) in both humans and dogs. Our pups even have extra eye muscles not found in their wolf ancestors that allow them to give us more expressive looks.
Because of this, experts believe that it stands to reason early domestic dogs were selectively bred for the capacity to empathize with their human companions. Perhaps it’s what we’ve been looking for in our furry friends all along.
Studies show that dogs who are exposed to recordings of other dogs whining or whimpering exhibit a heightened emotional response. It’s less clear, however, if that reaction is a measure of empathy or just a sign that the dog is on alert for the source of the pain or fear.
What is much more certain is that our pups mirror the emotions of dogs they consider friends. The same experiment revealed that dogs have a much greater response to the distress or excitement of fellow pack members – a fact that probably surprises families with multiple dogs very little. Many pet parents report one of their dogs licking or nuzzling their siblings during stressful events.
Empathy is a two-way street. Providing your pup with a stable, loving home is one of the best ways to encourage empathy. Consistent bonding activities and positive training techniques will help bring you even closer together.
Recognize and reward instances of empathetic behavior while they are happening. If you appreciate that your pup knew you needed cuddles at the end of a tough day, heap on the praise, and take a moment to gaze into those puppy eyes.