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Do dogs have complex emotions?

Dogs are good at showing their emotions. We know when they are happy or sad, scared or excited, and we can respond appropriately.

But do dogs experience more complex emotions, like guilt and pride? Lots of us would say they do, and that we’ve seen our dogs act guilty when they’ve done something wrong (like tucking into food that wasn’t for them) and proud when they have done something good (like finding a stick that’s bigger than they are at the park).

However, does the science back it up?

Studies have shown that dogs have the same brain structures as humans. They also have the same hormones and experience the same chemical changes that humans do in different emotional states.

Scientists have even shown that dogs have the hormone known as ‘oxytocin’. In humans, oxytocin is released when we feel love and affection for others. Simply put, oxytocin helps us feel good, and triggers our urge to nurture others.

So, with the same hormones and brain structures, it would make sense that dogs are capable of experiencing the same wide range of emotions that humans do.

But experts in the field of dog psychology warn against jumping to that conclusion. 

The mind of a toddler

They argue that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to a two-year-old child. At around the age of two, children experience basic emotions – but do not have the full range that comes as they get older.

Researchers believe that dogs don’t develop past the emotions a youn­g child experiences. It means they can know joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love, but not guilt, shame, pride or contempt.


What does all this mean?

If you trust in the science, it means that your dog can love their new Tug-E-Nuff Dog Gear toy, for example, but they don’t truly feel pride about it. And it means that if a dog appears to feel ‘guilty’ when they’ve done something wrong, in fact they are feeling fear about how you will react.

But what do you think? Does your dog show complex emotions? And if we know a dog experiences love, isn’t that all that matters?

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