Science has long debated about emotions in other animals than humans, but for dog guardians I think it has always been clear to see: dogs experience emotions.
How they experience emotions exactly, we will not be able to tell, because dogs can’t self report (, but if I tell you how I feel, will you then know exactly what I'm experiencing?). Dogs don't speak our language, but there is plenty of research which shows us that all mammals have similar brain activity during emotional experiences. We are also able to analyze dog body language, their expressions and vocalizations which give us indications of emotional responses.
There is not one definition for emotions in science (there are many), but within all mammals we can talk about strong survival mechanisms within the brain which can literally ‘take over’ a dog's behaviour during what I call emotionally explosive behaviour.
A healthy balance between positive and negative emotions is essential for a dog’s welfare. Dogs need to be able to regulate negative emotions, but they also need protection from situations that could cause negative emotionally explosive behaviours (fear, pain, frustration).
Up till now, most research has focussed on negative emotions. There are many books written about fear, for example, but there is little research which looks into positive emotions and how these benefit the welfare of dogs in particular. However, it is often suggested that positive social interactions (play, care, affection) contribute to a positive emotional state in dogs. Routines, predictability and a sense of control over their own experiences also contribute, as does successfully achieving rewards.
When dogs play, positive emotions are activated. Play has a positive influence on the social bonds that dogs have with their playing partners. When all involved in play are enjoying themselves, the emotional bond is strengthened. The play style and the amount of play time dogs have with their human guardians, says something about their bond. Being able to play daily contributes to dog welfare.
Every animal (including humans) can be strongly motivated by the right type of rewards. Just the anticipation of a potential reward can already release chemicals in the brain (dopamine, amongst others) and activate positive emotions. Humans should therefore be recommended to use rewards when trying to influence their dog's behaviour. If you want to read more about rewards for dogs, click here.
Dogs are highly social animals. They love to sleep close to their family members and affection in the form of gentle stroking and massage can (if not forced onto the dog and always while carefully observing the dog’s body language and offering room for the dog to move away) result in the release of hormones such as oxytocin (sometimes called the ‘love hormone’), strengthening the social bond. Receiving no affection at all, whatsoever, can seriously threaten the welfare of a dog.
One of the biggest mythes in the dog world is that dogs would want to control others. They don’t, they do want to control their own experiences (just like any other animal) in order to safeguard their own welfare.
Predictability and routines can be of great importance in offering dogs a sense of control through knowing what can be expected in their daily lives. Never knowing what to expect next can result in distress.
Allowing dogs to explore the world at their own pace and allowing them to make choices where possible (safety first) can benefit their welfare greatly. This will not only boost their confidence, but also result in a more emotionally stable dog who is able to adapt to changing environments better than dogs who are never allowed this type of ‘freedom of choice’.
Of course dogs need to build up resilience too and they need to learn to cope with disappointments or other types of negative experiences. They need to learn to adapt to changing environments. Totally isolating a dog from experiences as a form of ‘protection’ can threaten the behavioural needs of dogs. However, it is not advised to go ‘looking for trouble’ either. You will never be able to guarantee your dog a 100% positive emotional state for all of it’s lifetime. Life will happen to your dog. You do not need to provoke bad experiences in order for your dog to learn to cope with them. Protecting your dog from bad experiences where possible is a very good idea (beneficial to welfare and it can decrease the risk for developing behaviour problems).
© LotsDogs | Written by Liselot Boersma, dog welfare & behaviour consultant (PgDip CABW) and owner of LotsDogs, may 2016; translated in 2020. Copy paste of images or text is forbidden. Sharing the URL of this website is very much appreciated. Many thanks in advance.
Based in the Netherlands, Westbeemster
Dog Welfare & Behaviour consultant