Andy I happily adopted Watson almost two years ago now and every once in a while I find myself wondering just what my little guy is thinking. Does he have feelings like I do? Does he have dreams of chasing the neighborhood squirrel? What does he think while he stares at me eating dinner?
These questions and more are not uncommon among my fellow pet parents, but the good news is that scientists have increasingly been researching the canine mind, providing us humans some insight into the once secret lives of our furry family members.
Do Dogs Experience Emotions?
Research has found that dogs do indeed have the same brain structure that is responsible for emotions in humans. They even produce the same hormones and experience the same chemical changes in humans associated with different emotional states. Oxytocin, the love hormone, that is responsible for the feelings of love and affection are also present in dogs. Therefore it would seem reasonable to deduce that dogs have emotions that are similar to ours, but it is important to remember that the dog’s brain is only roughly equivalent to that of a toddler no more than 2 years old. This means that dogs do have emotions; however, they do not possess the full range of emotions.
Dogs also age much more quickly than humans which means that they acquire their full emotional range by the time they are 4-6 months old. Just like a toddler dogs are able to experience the basic emotions like joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress, and love. Dogs will not be able to develop complex emotions such as guilt, contempt, shame, or pride.
Now some might say, “But Max looked so guilty when I caught him digging through the trash.” While many people might think that their dog is feeling guilty, it is more than likely that the dog is exhibiting the more basic emotion of fear. In the this instance the dog has learned that when his person appears and the trash is all over the floor, bad things happen to him. So instead what people perceive as guilt is actually the dog’s fear of punishment.
Dogs are simply not capable of feeling guilt or shame. So get out those fun and funky outfits and dress them up in some of the best bow ties, ribbon flowers, striped wizard scarves, and personalized bandanas from The Woof Warehouse!
Do Dogs Smile?
Although many dogs, especially corgis and other typically friendly breeds appear to be smiling at times they are not actually smiling in the same way humans do. Rather, dogs exhibit an expression that mimics smiling. In this expression dogs have slightly opened jaws which reveal the tongue lapping over her front teeth. Additionally, the eyes tend to take on a teardrop shape as if the outer corners of the eyes are being pulled upward and slightly out. This is a casual expression that is seen in dogs when they are relaxed, playing, or interacting socially with people. Once any anxiety or stress is experienced by the dog its mouth closes and the tongue retracts.
Contrary to popular belief dogs are actually capable of laughing and usually do so when they are playing. Doggy laughter starts with the canine equivalent of smiling described above and also includes a sound that is similar to panting. In fact, a few years ago behaviorist Patricia Simonet at Sierra Nevada college recorded the sounds of dogs while they played. Over the course of analyzing these sounds she was able to identify a broader range of frequencies than when dogs are simply panting to cool off. Simonet also found that when she played the “laughs” of dogs puppies romped for joy. The sounds also helped calm anxious dogs in animal shelters.
Do Dogs Dream?
There are times when I could swear Watson is dreaming, especially when I hear him whimper quite loudly in his sleep. In fact, many dog owners claim that their dogs must be dreaming as they notice Fido occasionally quiver, twitch a leg, or even appear to be running in their sleep while laying on the floor.
Structurally, a dog’s brain is similar to a human brain and the brain-wave patterns even look similar between dogs and humans during sleep. Dogs also exhibit the same stages of electrical activity observed in humans. These pieces of evidence would seem to point to the idea that dogs do in fact dream.
Much of the dreaming you do at night is associated with activities that you engaged in that day. Therefore if you had participated in rock climbing during the day you might have a dream about it that night. Dogs are very similar in that there is evidence that suggests they too dream about common dog activities.
Human brains have a special structure called the pons which keeps us from acting out our dreams. When scientists inactivated this part of the brain in dogs, they found that dogs started to move and react to their dreams even though their brains indicated that they were still asleep. Scientists also observed that dogs started to move only when their brains entered a deep stage of sleep associated with dreaming. And during the course of those dreams dogs actually executed the actions they performed in their dreams. For instance, if a dog was dreaming of chasing a fox they mimic running in their sleep. In fact, it is interesting to note that scientists have found that small dogs have more dreams than big dogs do, but that big dogs have dreams that last longer.
For all the research conducted over the last decade or so we still may never know what our dogs are thinking moment by moment. But that shouldn't stop us from trying to make them smile, laugh, and have the best dreams. So go give your pooch a smooch or take a trip to the dog beach where he can let loose!