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Do dogs have feelings?

11/03/2021 - Advice

Everyone on the Nosey Barker team believes that dogs are sentient beings and deserve to be treated as such. Do dogs have feelings? Absolutely they do!

Most pet parents I’m sure will agree that their pets have personality. How often have you heard someone talk about their pooch using phrases like “he understands every word I say” or “she knows when I’m sad and comes for a cuddle”, “he’s never forgotten the time when……” But are they right?

Can dogs empathise with our emotions? Are they able to form thoughts and make decisions? Do they remember past events? Or are pet parents guilty of anthropomorphism? (Attributing human characteristics to other species).

The 5 freedoms for animals
Back in the late 1970s, The Farm Animal Welfare Council began campaigning for five freedoms for animals

  1. Freedom from thirst and hunger
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
  5. Freedom from fear and distress

Although the five freedoms were originally aimed at farm and zoo animals, they absolutely apply to domestic pets too. As much as we love our four-legged friends, we do control their environment, make choices for them (what to eat, when and where to exercise etc) just as a farmer or zookeeper does for the creatures in his or her charge. That gives us 100% responsibility for their physical and mental wellbeing.

I’d like to think that all pet parents are very well versed in points 1, 2 and 3. In fact, as a dog trainer, I would say that all of my clients are keen to keep their dogs in the best of health.  When it comes to points 4 and 5 though, experience has taught me that although 99.9% of people absolutely would never wish to cause their pets any emotional distress, we, as a society are not always well educated in what pets need.

The science behind knowing how dogs feel
Scientists are certain that dogs have feelings – in fact there’s been a lot of research done to determine what happens in our pets’ bodies and brains in different situations. In fact, some of this research is at the heart of reward-based dog training.

Gregory Berns, a scientist, decided to try to track what happens in a dog’s brain when he or she is exposed to different triggers. To do this, he trained several dogs to lie perfectly still in an MRI scanner while he scanned their brains and watched what happens when they are shown treats, toys, photographs etc. (The dogs were not constrained in any way – they were free to leave the scanner whenever they wanted to…they were there by choice and therefore not stressed).

The human brain and thought patterns had already been thoroughly investigated with MRI scanning and Berns knew which areas of a human brain react to emotional stimuli.  And guess what – canine brains react in much the same way.

There is however, one big difference between dogs and humans – (besides the wet nose and waggy tail); the reason that humans can empathise with each other, is that we have language. The spoken word and the written word. Dogs don’t have words (at least not that we know of!) but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings.

Berns concluded from his research that dogs DO understand the world around them, they are definitely sentient beings and they are certainly individuals. I urge you to read the book if you can – it’s called “What it’s like to be a dog”.
Reward-based training and mutual respect
All of the dog training we do at Nosey Barker, whether it’s with our own dogs, with clients and their dogs or on our training walks, is kind and ethical and based on mutual respect. We truly believe that by working together, dogs and people can build truly rewarding relationships.

Take Diggory Dawg for example – my own handsome boy. From the moment he arrived in my life, he’s been invited to share his toys with me. He’ll bring me a piece of “treasure”, hand it over and know that it will be given back to him. Having worked with dogs whose resource guarding behaviour is so strong that its dangerous, I want Diggory to feel so confident around people and their hands that he never develops this heart-breaking behaviour. Plus, if he does “find” something he shouldn’t have – I can ask him to ‘show me’ and then dispose of the item appropriately without getting into a confrontation.

Making a better life for your dog
Dogs do have feelings and you can make a better life for your pet by providing lots of enrichment activities, socialising them appropriately and using reward-based training techniques to teach them how to live happily alongside humans.

Nosey Barker offers lots of training solutions to help you and your pet live a happier life together. Explore our website to discover more.

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