Pride And Predator: Do Dogs Feel Proud Of Themselves?

A dog listens while being trained.

Previously, we’ve looked at whether dogs can feel emotions like guilt or jealousy with mixed results. Many researchers do not believe that dogs actually feel guilt, but instead express anticipation over punishment under certain circumstances — for example, if the accident they had in the kitchen is visible when their human comes home.

On the other hand, at least one study showed that dogs can behave in a jealous manner, at least when they think their human is paying too much attention to another dog — although, again, it isn’t clear whether they’re experiencing the emotion or we are just projecting our human interpretation onto the dog’s actions.

It’s Complicated

This brings us to another complex emotion: Pride. Just as many of us have seen a dog acting “guilty” — head down, avoiding eye contact, and shuffling anxiously — we’ve probably seen a dog that appeared to be proud exhibiting the exact opposite body language. You can often see this in show dogs, especially when they’ve won, such as this reaction from Border collie Tex after running an agility course faster than any other dog.

It certainly looks like pride, or a sense of accomplishment, but is it? Unfortunately, there really haven’t been any studies into whether dogs can be proud and there are arguments on both sides of the issue.

Mammal or Machine?

One thing to keep in mind is that our understanding of how dogs experience the world has changed enormously in the past several hundred years. During the 16th through early 18th centuries, philosophers like René Descartes and Nicholas de Malebranche took a highly mechanistic view of all animals, including dogs, believing that they did not think or feel at all but simply reacted to the environment automatically. If a dog yelped when someone kicked it, it was because this machine called “dog” was programmed to do so, but it didn’t feel any pain or go through any thought process leading to the yelp.

Nowadays, every animal lover knows that this position is wrong. The reason for this belief at the time was that to attribute emotions to animals might imply that they had souls — not a safe position to take in the days when the Catholic Church still held sway over Europe.

Eventually, science determined that animals, including dogs, do feel something, but then the question became, “What?” They already knew from human studies that we aren’t born with all of our emotions. These develop over time, from birth to about four to four-and-a-half years.

Also, humans don’t start to develop complex emotions until after two-and-a-half years. The emotions that do arise before that point also happen to be the emotions that dogs clearly exhibit. In the order that they appear, these are: excitement, distress, contentment, disgust, fear, anger, joy, suspicion, and affection. (Disgust may seem a bit odd if you think of it in terms of moral judgment, but in this context it is simply the negative reaction to something unpleasant to the senses. Think of a baby rejecting broccoli or a dog sniffing vinegar.)

The complex emotions that come later and may not be felt by dogs are, in order, shame, pride, guilt, and contempt. The argument that they don’t feel these emotions boils down to a dog never developing them in the first place. Their emotional brains make it to about the same place as human toddlers, but not beyond.

Two Points of View

Writing in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren, Ph.D, stated “…we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions… However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions…”

Coren bases this belief partly on the knowledge that other aspects of a dog’s mental abilities do not develop past the two-and-a-half year old human either, so it isn’t likely that the emotional parts of the brain would get much further along.

In response to this, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D, came to the opposite conclusion, saying that “until the detailed research is conducted we don’t really know” whether dogs can or cannot experience the emotions Coren mentions. And there is certainly evidence that other animals can experience complex emotions. Dolphins, elephants, and our non-human primate cousins have been seen to exhibit those complex emotions like shame, guilt, contempt — and pride.

Bekoff further argues that we have determined that dogs have all of the same brain structures that we do, as well as the same hormones, both of which are critical to how we react emotionally to the world. Perhaps we haven’t been able to determine one way or another whether they feel complex emotions like pride only because we haven’t figured out how to test for it.

Until we know for sure, it’s safest to not anthropomorphize our dogs too much and settle for a middle ground. Since dogs are pack animals who follow leaders, what we see as pride is probably more like a dog’s simple joy and contentment at having done something to make their Pack Leader happy. They aren’t feeling chuffed for themselves, but for us.

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