Dogs’ Emotions Are Surprisingly Human

“Feelings are a very difficult business. So outsource them.” —Anonymous artwork

In A Nutshell

Detecting the emotional capacities of a creature that can’t communicate in the same language as we do can be a complicated thing. Humans are left interpreting the body language and vocalizations of all sorts of animals and filtering them through our own point of view. But recently, science has given us another way to look at how dogs experience emotions. A direct look at what’s going on in their brains has shown that dogs have very similar brain chemistry to humans, and the electrical activity that shows up in their brains at certain stimuli mirrors our own.

The Whole Bushel

The idea of dogs as intelligent creatures isn’t a new one—we wouldn’t have spent so much time domesticating them and teaching them to perform various tasks for us if it was. But the idea of dogs as emotional, feeling creatures has long been up for debate. Opinions range from the idea that they’re just fur-covered machines with no real ability to feel or dream to the idea that they’re really little four-legged people. Recently, scientific discoveries are beginning to lean toward the latter opinion.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns of Emory University has been trying to eliminate the communication barrier that exists between dog and human. He’s doing this by developing a method to look directly at what’s going on in their brains through an MRI scanner. Using first his own dog Callie as a pioneer, he has trained dogs to stand unhindered in an MRI machine, then exposed them to various stimuli. The resulting brain wave activity is strikingly similar to that seen in a human brain.

When exposed to things that they enjoy, such as a treat, a toy, or their favorite human, dogs show increased activity in a section of the brain called the caudate nucleus. In humans, the caudate nucleus activates in the presence of things that we like; whether it’s food, music, or another person, this is one of the few sections of the brain that shows consistent activity when we see or hear something that we like.

And it’s the same for dogs.

While that doesn’t necessarily mean that they love us in the same way that we love them, it does certainly and strongly suggest that their brains are telling them that they feel happy. The study further looked at and discovered what parts of a dog’s brain were activated by other stimuli, such as the unfamiliar and the scary.

A physical brain chemistry similar to ours also suggests an emotional awareness in dogs.

Present in both humans and dogs is the hormone oxytocin. In humans, it’s a known neurotransmitter that is released during socially pleasing experiences from greeting an old friend to orgasm; this gives it its nickname of the “love hormone.” The more oxytocin that’s produced, the more intense the experience is. Dogs have the same hormone, and produce it in many of the same circumstances. Oxytocin levels rise when they are reunited with their best human friend after a short separation, as well as when they’re petted or played with.

On the other side of the coin, dogs also share another important, emotion-producing hormone with us: cortisol. The presence of cortisol is linked to stress and fear; the more intense the emotion and the situation, the higher the spike in cortisol levels. Research has shown that dogs—as well as humans—have similar spikes in oxytocin levels and drops in cortisol when in pleasant situations.

It’s also been found that there’s a marked difference in the levels of oxytocin present in a dog’s system that depends on their relationship with their human family members. Dogs who mainly just coexist with a human family showed not only lower oxytocin levels when around their humans, but lower levels of increase when reunited with them. However, dogs who are very strongly bonded to their human counterparts showed an overall higher level of the happiness hormone, and more marked rise and fall in hormones when interacting with their human.

Show Me The Proof

Psychology Today: Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?
Psychology Today: Do Dogs Have the ‘Look of Love’?
NY Times: Dogs Are People, Too
Psychology Today: What Is the Best Way to Greet Your Dog?
Dogs Never Lie About Love