They make brilliant companions, but do dogs really feel empathy for humans - and what is going through their minds when they play, panic or attack?
Read more: the inner lives of cats: what our feline friends really think
It is humanity’s great frustration, to gaze into the eyes of a dog, feel so very close to the creature, and yet have no clue what it’s thinking. It’s like the first question you ask of a recently born baby, with all that aching, loving urgency: is that a first smile? Or yet more wind? Except that it’s like that for ever.
I can never know what my staffie is thinking. Does Romeo realise that what he just did was funny, and did he do it on purpose? Is he laughing on the inside? Can he smile? Can he feel anxious about the future? Can he remember life as a puppy? Does he still get the horn, even though I had his knackers off some years ago? And, greater than all these things: does he love me? I mean, really love me, the way I love him?
To get some answers, I enlisted a group of experts, ranging from a zoologist to an evolutionary anthropologist, and channelled the spirit of Jaak Panksepp, who is commonly acknowledged as the grandfather of dog neuroscience. He died in 2017, leaving behind a body of experimental research and insight, including the theory that all mammal brains share seven primary emotional systems: fear, rage, lust, “seeking”, panic/grief, care and play. Most of my questions fall into these categories, apart from the age-old conundrum: why does my dog get so aroused by hi-vis lanyards? To which the answer is: it could be any reason at all.
Do dogs understand human laughter? Do they make you laugh on purpose?
“Dogs do seem to respond positively to our positive emotions, like laughter and smiling,” says Dr Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist and author of The Genius of Dogs. But he is cautious about interpretation. “Whether they understand the reason behind the joke, that’s harder to say.”
“Dogs have learned to like us laughing,” says Rob Alleyne, a behaviourist who appeared in the TV series Dog Borstal. “They’ll do something, then look at you to see if you’re amused, then repeat that.” I once asked the comedian Rob Beckett how he could remember his routine – he keeps almost no notes – and he said: “If 500 people laugh at something you said, you’re not going to forget that.” The same circuit of approbation, creating feelings of gratification, laying down a memory of how to elicit that response in the future, is occurring in a dog. It’s just not going to be wordplay – it’ll be something more slapstick.
Can dogs laugh – and do they make each other laugh?
One of the most famous strands of Panksepp’s research looks at laughter in non-human mammals (including a paper with the delicious title: 50-kHz Chirping (Laughter?) in Response to Conditioned and Unconditioned Tickle-induced Reward in Rats). Dogs, he found, can sound as if they’re laughing when they’re panting, but that’s because they are: when you analyse the pant with a sonograph, then map its burst of frequencies, then play those frequencies to other dogs, it reduces stress and increases tail wagging, play-bows (head down, butt in the air stance) play-face (you know your dog’s play-face) and pro-social behaviour in general.
Can a dog smile?
All dogs have an expression of pleasure or contentment, which you’ll recognise as you get to know a particular animal. However, owners of some breeds believe their dogs are more smiley than average and therefore happier. This is mistaken, Alleyne says. “Generally, dogs with broad faces – staffies, rottweilers – look like they’re grinning. The same expression on a German shepherd will look like it’s curling its lips back.”
Does my dog love me?
Many years ago there was a segment on Kilroy, the daytime TV show, called “I love my animal but does my animal love me?” Alleyne appeared on it and remembers: “The audience were ready with a gallows for me by the end. Because I don’t think any animal loves us. They do things that we interpret as love, but they don’t have the capacity, not the way we mean it. That’s why we can rehome them. I couldn’t remove you from your partner and say: ‘I’ve got a friend who’s a much better fit for you.’ Whereas, if I took Romeo and gave him to someone else, three months on, that’ll be his owner.” A sound point, but if Romeo died, three months on, I’d probably have a new dog. So what if we love each other the exact same amount? What if irreplaceability isn’t the measure, in interspecies relationships?
Attuning ourselves to the desires of another species has a profound impact on our own cognition, according to philosopher Donna Haraway
If it’s not love, why does it feel so good?
“You are definitely more than a food dispenser,” Hare says. “Parents and their babies have an oxytocin loop, where they can make each other feel good just by staring into each others’ eyes. Somehow, dogs have inserted themselves into this loop, so that when dogs and owners stare at each other, it increases the oxytocin in both the dog and the owner.”
What on earth is a dog doing in my oxytocin loop?
The modern understanding of canine domestication – scoped out to its full in Hare’s The Genius of Dogs, and the book he co-authored with Vanessa Woods, Survival of the Friendliest – is that selection for friendliness led to the evolution of a new cognition in dogs. They gained a social understanding of what humans meant and wanted, in their gestures and commands, and the benefit to dogs is plain: shelter, nutrition and whatnot. But the philosopher Donna Haraway argues, in Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness, that attuning ourselves to the desires of another species has a profound impact on our own cognition. This isn’t really about what’s going on in your dog’s head. It’s just interesting.
Can my dog empathise?
No expert alive can tell you that your dog doesn’t know when you’re sad. Alleyne, who, as you can see, is pretty hard-boiled, recalls: “I had a dog many years ago who would recognise when I was down. He would keep his head on my knee for an hour, saying: ‘I understand.’” They can also tell, sometimes, when you have cancer or, more recently, Covid, but that’s more about bio-detection than intimacy.
One simple measure of empathy is yawning. “Contagious yawning is related to empathy scores in adults,” Hare explains. “And in one study, over 70% of dogs yawned when they saw someone yawning.”
Fear, panic and grief
Why do dogs get separation anxiety?
Strictly speaking, most of them don’t, according to Petrina Firth, director of the company The Pet Coach and a specialist in the condition. She says she has only met one dog in her career with clinical separation anxiety – an over-attachment to one person. What people generally mean by the term in dogs – destructive behaviour, howling for hours, sometimes nipping ankles when the owner’s shoes are put on, lying down in front of the doorway – is “isolation distress”, generally laid down in puppyhood. Your dog doesn’t feel safe alone, and will do anything to avoid that amorphous feeling of peril. “They don’t come pre-programmed,” Firth explains. “When you go out to Marks & Spencer, they don’t know you’ll be back in an hour. It takes quite a lot of training from when they’re a young puppy to teach them that being on their own is OK, nothing bad happens. Nothing amazing is going to happen, but nothing bad.”
How do they know how long you’ve been gone? Do dogs have a sense of time?
If you feed your dog at the same time every day, their digestive systems will become tailored to expect food at that time and, remarkably, it can be to-the-minute accurate. The same goes for cats.
But a dog that can be left for 40 minutes, yet freak out after 45 – what’s that about? The current best theory is that your scent in the air recedes minutely over time. Whenever you’re trying to understand a smell-related behaviour, remember that humans can smell a spoon of sugar in a cup of tea, while a dog can smell a spoon of sugar in a swimming pool.
What’s the difference between distress and anxiety?
This is mainly developmental – a young dog will experience distress in the moment: “I’m on my own and I don’t like it.” As it gets older, Firth says, “it will start to worry that it’s going to have that horrible feeling – worry about worrying, which is essentially what anxiety is. And there are lots of cues in the environment, like humans finding keys, to set them off.”
Can a dog remember negative events? Can it get PTSD?
Adverse early experiences can certainly affect a dog’s later behaviour, though long-term memory is insufficiently understood for us to know whether they can remember them. Service dogs returning from war zones present symptoms very similar to trauma response in soldiers.
Does a neutered dog still crave sex?
This feels like one of those things humans ought to understand before they do the snip. Yet apparently we don’t. “It’s a complex question, with no easy answer,” says zoologist Dr Naomi Harvey. “It may depend on the timing of neutering. Expression of reproductive behaviour requires gonadal hormones, and absence of these hormones during pubertal brain development can impair reproductive behaviour long-term.” You’d expect both sexes to have diminished drive if neutered before puberty, then – however, a study of free-roaming male dogs in Chile found that castrated dogs showed no reduction in sexual activity.
Does humping always mean sexual arousal?
No, says Harvey. “Humping is a fairly common displacement behaviour for dogs feeling conflicted, stressed or experiencing anticipation. It can’t be assumed to indicate lust.”
What’s the root cause of aggression?
Dogs have the same limbic system as us, manifesting what used to be the two Fs and is now understood as four: under threat, they’ll go into fight, flight, fawn or freeze mode. (Humans have another pathway to violence, which is humiliation, but a dog cannot be humiliated. “They have the emotional complexity of a two- to three-year-old child,” Firth explains, “so they don’t feel guilt and they don’t feel shame.”)
Attacks are rooted in fear, and “one of the reasons people are often bitten”, Alleyne says, is that they misinterpret signs of fear. “A dog that’s panting may just be hot or he may be stressed. A dog with ‘whale eye’ [where the whites are clearly showing] might be stressed or he might be looking at something in his periphery. You’ve got to be able to look at the overall picture. If he’s got whale eye, and he’s panting, and his tail is down, and his ears are back, then he goes from panting to lip-licking, you have to be able to put all those things together.” And keep your distance.
Why do some dogs attack others for no apparent reason?
Hare counsels, as Alleyne does, that you just have to read it right. “Some dogs are xenophobic, which means they don’t like strangers. So just meeting a strange dog could create enough fear to make it feel like it needs to protect itself. A lot of dog aggression is explainable if you have a good understanding of dogs’ natural history, body language and behaviour.”
Alleyne’s explanation is more controversial: “Aggression is by a mile the most common problem I see, which it wasn’t 20 years ago. We’ve been bullied and badgered into socialising our dogs. They’ve become aggressive towards each other when we’ve never tried harder to socialise them. We haven’t thought about what socialising is: what we’re really doing is allowing them to be beaten up by other dogs when they’re too small to protect themselves. We call it one-trial learning: it only takes a single incident for a puppy to learn that other dogs are a threat.”
Why do they quest? What are they looking for?
Essentially, dogs want no more than the average New Zealander, as politicians put it: somewhere to live, something to do, someone to love, something to hope for – except without the hope, having no real concept of the future. But centuries of interaction with humans have given them intense, breed-specific desires. Take the dog of the moment, the cockapoo: “People don’t realise that the mixture is two working dogs,” says Firth. “So even if you’ve got the prettiest show cocker, and the prettiest show poodle, in their genes they’re meant to be out retrieving.”
I’m not trying to shame cockapoo owners, by the way: I’ve always had staffies, and I’m constantly astonished and appalled to find that a dog bred to bring down a bull will, in the absence of one, make do with a labrador. We have taught them, over generations, these unshiftable urges. Now they’re here to teach us cause and effect, if only we would listen.