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Name that emotion … dogs have them, too

Joy. Sadness. Hope. Fear. Fairness. Compassion. Curiosity. Resentment. Jealousy. Anxiety. Embarassment. Remorse.

Despite those who will tell you dogs feel none of those — that they are solely motivated by hunger — evidence is mounting that dogs’ emotions run a gamut a lot like the gamut our’s run. (Damn gamut.)

Ten years ago, anyone arguing that dogs felt guilt or compassion would have been laughed out of the room — and accused of anthropomorphism once he was gone.

Today, as an article in the Denver Post points out, scientists are finally acknowledging what pet owners have suspected all along — that dogs have feelings too, a lot like our’s, probably as a result of all these years evolving under the same roof together.

“We’re not trying to elevate animals. We’re not trying to reduce humans. We’re not saying we’re better or worse or the same,” said animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of the University of Colorado. “We’re saying we’re not alone in having a nuanced moral system.”

Bekoff, co-author of the newly released “Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals,” is convinced dogs animals possess empathy and compassion, the emotions upon which moral sense is built. “Dogs know they are dependent. They learn to read us,” Bekoff said. “Dogs develop this great sense of trust. We’re tightly linked, and there is something spiritual about that unity.”

These days, more scientists are following in Bekoff’s footsteps — Harvard University, for instance, recently opened a Canine Cognition Lab, where researchers seek insight into the psychology of both humans and dogs.

“The amount of skepticism has dramatically dropped,” Bekoff said.

You can find the full Denver Post article here.


Comment from Mary Schmidt
Time May 17, 2009 at 8:22 am

Going to read the Denver Post article as soon as a get a chance….I was waiting for someone to write a comment about the kind of emotion displayed by the dog in NYC who refused to leave his mother’s side and tried to protect his mother from strangers. What would we call it if a human had risked injury to divert traffic from an injured parent? Filial love? Loyalty? Courage beyond fear?

Comment from Anne-n-Spencer
Time May 17, 2009 at 7:41 pm

It’s a great article. Since I’m a firm believer in evolution and natural selection, I have to wonder if we’ve managed to pick up any desirable traits from our dogs. I still think their emotions are somewhat different from ours and are motivated by different–well, different triggers, perhaps. That’s not to say they’re inferior or “lower.” Just different.

Theologically, I’ve always thought of dogs as being a bit like the old-fashioned idea of angels–beings of a different sort who can serve as messengers. Certainly they have a lot to teach us. Each dog (well, each dog who hasn’t been too badly damaged by humans) occupies his own niche in the creation and behaves as if he had the perfect right to be here–which in fact he has. They can’t sin because they don’t behave in ways that are contrary to what is right for them. They share that in common with other animals. They are whole and perfect in ways that we can’t be.

(On an off-topic, we’ve been in Philadelphia this weekend exhibiting at the Philadelphia Trunk Show. Not only was it completely dog-friendly with the exception of a few flower borders, but the PSPCA was there in force with some wonderful dogs. Two found forever homes on Saturday. It was great!)

Comment from LabradorArt
Time May 19, 2009 at 4:21 pm

“They can’t sin because they don’t behave in ways that are contrary to what is right for them.”
What a lovely way to put it — something new for me and I am glad to have read this comment. Thanks Anne-n-Spencer!
No new idea for me that dogs feel emotions. Perhaps different from ours and with a different basis, but emotions nonetheless and just as important to them in their little lives as ours are to us. And not just dogs — most animals too.