Whether dogs have the ability to experience secondary emotions, such as pride, jealousy and guilt, is an issue currently being debated by animal behaviorists everywhere. It was long ago shown that dogs experience fear, happiness, anger, sadness and love. However, are they really capable of higher level emotions that involve understanding what a person is thinking or feeling themselves?
In order for dogs to feel secondary emotions, they must be able to understand that someone has information and/or a plan that differs from their own. In a study done by Alexandra Horowitz in 2009, she concluded that the look that dogs demonstrate, head lowered, tail down and ears back, that we associate with guilt is actually a learned response. When owners scold, dogs quickly figure out that looking “guilty” will get them to stop yelling. They don’t feel badly for something they may have done wrong, they just want the yelling to stop.
Researchers at Tufts University suggest that domestic dogs may possess the basic form of empathy, the ability to understand what others are thinking and/or feeling. An example given is the dog who gets into the trash when his owner is not home. Usually the dog is waiting for the owner to get home, but on the days he’s gotten into the trash, he is nowhere to be found!
In England, a dog jealousy study demonstrated how dogs would push their way between two owners while they were hugging. In other research, Dr. Brian Hare also demonstrated that dogs can derive information from humans. He hid a treat from the dog and then pointed to the place where the treat was hidden. The dog was able to go to the site and retrieve the treat.
It is obviously difficult to figure out exactly what dogs are thinking, but many behaviorists are finding ways to demonstrate that dogs are capable of some level of self-awareness.