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Do dogs have feelings like us humans? A little insight...

A two way debate on whether dogs have emotions. Some say that dogs do not have the same feelings as humans, their brains are not as complex and they do not have emotion as such... And some others don't quite agree.
.... I'm not sure this is exactly correct. Emotions in humans are experienced in the limbic system of the brain, which is one of the most primitive parts of the human brain and which is present in some form in all mammals.

Although creatures without language cannot conceptualize or express the emotions that humans can, I don't think we can say that they do not experience them.

I train dogs and specialize in analyzing dog behavior through body language and gestures. Through a lot of experience and knowledge, many things about a dog's intentions or mood can be deduced, but as good as I would like to think I am at what I do, reading a dog in this way is about as primitive a form of "communication" as a game of charades is.

First, no one knows whether animals experience emotions, and if they do whether they are perceived or "felt" in the same manner we experience them. So when we talk about our convictions about animal emotions, I think we should step back and realize that we are talking more about our own brains than the dog's brain! People get "invested" in this argument because THEY have strong feelings or possess a paradigm about how animals think and feel, but only a dog knows what its own paradigm of reality is like.

On the one hand, it is rather egotistical of us to think that dogs or other animals must think or feel in ways similar to us. Considering that dogs have different instincts than us, different goals and different strategies for obtaining those goals, a difference sense of time and causation, a totally dissimilar anatomy and physiology for the most part--considering they have much smaller brains, evolved in a different environment than we did, communicate differently than we do, are hunters and carnivores unlike us, go through developmental stages unlike humans, reach maturity within a year or two unlike us, live a life that is 1/5th to 1/6th the length of the average human life, (and I could go on for pages)... how likely is it that they have evolved to think or feel emotions in a manner that is in any way similar to the way we do?

Some people point out that all mammals share similar structures-- more specifically that they all have a limbic system of some sort, which is involved in the generation of emotions--you fail to consider that the similar structures do not necessarily perform similar duties, no matter how closely related the species may be. Our distant cousins, the apes, have opposable thumbs, but that does not give them the dexterity of a human hand. Wolves, dogs and humans all have urinary tracts, but only the first two use them to scent mark and communicate information. Virtually all mammals share a tongue, but unlike dogs who use it to regulate body heat, we will not die if ours is removed.

Seemingly analogous anatomical structures differ in their function in various animals, but more importantly, dogs lack many of the additional anatomical structures and abilities which humans possess. It has been made clear through numerous experiments that dogs are not good problems solvers, especially in situations that demand logical connections, memory, generalization, or imitation.

(In the Coppinger's "Dogs," there is a fascinating story of how foxes and dogs and other canines where kept in kennels inside a larger chain link fence that surrounded the compound. In order to escape, an animal had to not only open its own cage, but had to somehow get through the locked gate in the fence that surrounded the facility. Dogs would routinely escape their cages, only to be stuck for the night inside the perimeter fence. On the other hand, wild canines (I forget if they were foxes or wolves) knew how to open their cages, but never did so until one evening when a careless worker left the outer gate open. On that night, numerous foxes or wolves escaped. They had waited for months, hiding the fact that they could open their cages from their humans handlers--until the open outer gate provided the opportunity for them to escape! No dog ever did this. It is beyond their mental abilities to put that many concepts together!)

So, yes, we can point out that dogs have a limbic system like humans, and that it is catacholamines such a seratonin, GABA, norepinepherine, and dopamine that regulate the way an animal feels, but we do not know whether these same chemicals occur in dogs in the same proportions found in humans. We do not know that the canine nervous system reacts and "feels" these chemicals in the same way as in humans. (Remember, as similar as we may be, chocolate is a treat for humans and Ibuprofen is a miracle of a pain killer, but both substances in moderate amounts can kill a dog!)

Most importantly, humans have additional brain features such as pre-frontal lobes and a vast network of ganglia dedicated to thinking and making connections between stimuli which dogs lack, or do not have in such a highly developed form. These structures of the human brain add layer upon layer of enhancement and meaning to the primitive "fight or flight" type emotions (fear, anger, etc.) generated by the amygdala, one of the prime components of the limbic system. This enhanced processing power of the human brain refines and associates basic emotions with thoughts, images, and other sensory data to create complex pathways and patterns of interconnected thoughts and associations in our brains that a dog is certainly not capable of experiencing.

Outwardly, also, we see few examples of dogs emoting as humans do. I have never seen a dog laugh in ten years of working with dogs. When people tell me their dog smiles, I think of the "smile" on the face of a newborn human infant--usually a dependable sign of gas pains, but certainly not a response to humor! And dogs are incapable physically of exhibiting even one of the most basic and universally understood of human emotional gestures: crying and the creation of tears.

The claim that we can recognize emotion in a dog seems particularly silly to me when I contemplate the fact that we cannot even reliably recognize emotions in a fellow human! People often cry when they are happy. Many hide their feelings behind a stark poker face for an entire lifetime, while others cannot contain the mildest feeling without acting out. As a public school English teacher, I read clear understandable passages to 12th graders who have no idea what they mean! Many students pretend to be listening, but they are not. And some of us hear voices telling us we are being watched by aliens. So how anyone can claim to "know" a dog's inner world--what it may be thinking or feeling--is beyond me! According to Freud, I do not even know all that I am thinking!!!

We live in a time when there are two competing and opposite views of dogs: One is the Walt Disney view (better know in the scientific community as anthropomorphizing), in which our dogs hug and "kiss" us, and love us and miss us, and are basically reduced to midgets in dog suits. The opposing view is best exemplified by the Behaviorists, who will not admit anything that cannot be measured, tested, or directly observed--where dogs end up as empty robot shells. (Interestingly, the most successful methods we use to train dogs are based on this view, including Operant and Classical Conditioning.) Somewhere in between is the dog--a species in its own right, with its own characteristics and ways of perceiving--a noble and lovable companion animal and worker that is neither human nor robot.

Only when we stop trying to make dogs into something they are not, stop trying to attribute to them the qualities we WISH they had, but also allow that there is more there than the behaviorists' war-cry of "What you see is what you get!"--only then will we be honoring and valuing these animals for what they are instead of for what we dream them to be. They are dogs--a wonderful enough creation without the fanciful embellishments!

Having said all that, I defend the right of any dog owner to indulge in the fantasy that their dog loves them and is responding to them in a human manner. I indulge in such imaginings myself. But when we fail to realize that they are just imaginings, and not reality, that is when we do a disservice to ourselves and our pets. Barry "A dog cannot be bad, it can only be a dog."

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