Does your dog really smile at you? Does he feel guilty for stealing that slice of pizza off your plate? What is he trying to say with that annoying bark?
After many decades of research, neuroscientists and psychologists have begun to answer questions like these, allowing us the great opportunity to the inner-workings of our beloved canines’ brains.
What do we know about how dogs experience language and emotion?
How Dogs Process Language
Back in the 1990’s, psychologist and human cognition expert Stanley Coren PH.D thought to deploy language tests on dogs that had already been developed for children. With modifications, these tests helped Coren assess dogs’ language ability in words and gestures.
Coren’s data concluded that the average dog can learn to recognize about 165 words and gestures! Additionally, “super dogs” – those found in the top 20% of dog intelligence – can learn 250 or more.
Other scientists caught wind of these findings and soon tested Coren’s findings themselves.
Chaser, deemed the smartest dog in the world, has a vocabulary of around 1,000 words.
Dogs clearly have the ability to understand language in a far greater capacity than we realize.
Do Dogs Experience the Same Emotions as People?
What’s incredibly fascinating is that dogs have the same brain structures that produce emotions as humans. It has been discovered that dogs have the same hormones and experience the same chemical changes as we do during emotional states.
What’s more is canines also have the hormone oxytocin, which in humans, is involved with love and affection.
With these things in mind, it is reasonable to conclude that dogs have emotions similar to ours. Nonetheless, it is important to not go overboard with this conclusion.
Discover Magazine states that “the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a human who is 2 to 2.5 years old.” Toddlers clearly have emotions, but not all possible emotions, since more complex emotions emerge later on as they grow into adults.
Dogs develop much more quickly than us (remember the general rule that for every 1 year a human ages, a dog ages 7?). This means that dogs generally attain their full emotional range between 4-6 months of age.
Similar to toddlers, dogs experience the basic emotions: excitement, anger, joy, fear, distress, love, and contentment.
However, dogs do not and will not develop more complex emotions, such as guilt and shame.
What we know so far about canine cognition and emotion is truly remarkable. These findings open the door for further research on canine cognition that could answer our burning questions about human’s deep connection with our dogs.