People have been wondering if dogs have emotions for thousands of years. Philosophers have debated the subject, lining up on different sides. Most of us who have dogs agree that dogs have feelings.
Aristotle believed that animals were without reason but believed that they did have “sensations” — they could feel if you cut them or hurt them. But as far as having human-type emotions? No. Likewise Plato and St. Augustine believed that animals did not have human-type emotions. You should be aware that in classical times what we call the emotions today were not very highly thought of. Passions were considered suspect in people. To give in to one’s emotions was a bad thing. Therefore, for a person to display emotions was undesirable. Being emotional was a bad thing. It certainly wasn’t something that philosophers would want humans to have in common with animals. Animals were held in generally low esteem. They were beasts.
In classical times the dog was considered noble, loyal and faithful but he was still a dog — an animal. There was not the least effort to endow him with human qualities such as emotions. Instead, dogs were admired for their achievements as dogs: how well they guarded the house; how well they hunted; how well they tended flocks of sheep, etc.
The utmost praise for a dog among classical writers comes from, perhaps, Homer, who describes Odysseus’s old dog Argus who would not die for 20 years until he saw his master safely return home. He was the only one who recognized Odysseus, an old man and in disguise, when he finally returned from the Trojan War. The old dog saw his master, let out a whimper, wagged his tail and died on the spot. He was considered a great dog.
The philosopher Descartes denied that animals had feelings, but then he was hard-pressed to prove that he himself existed. John Locke argued that animals do have feelings. Rousseau argued that animals are sentient beings, so therefore would have feelings. Bentham seemed to argue that animals can suffer, so they must have feelings. Schopenhauer believed that animals had feelings.
Do our dogs have feelings? Dogs have not changed from Aristotle or Homer’s time yet our ideas about emotions and feelings have. Today we honor feelings more and we look to find them in our dogs. We are pleased when we believe we see evidence that our dogs love us. Perhaps we encourage our dogs to show more emotions. We may raise dogs to be more affectionate with us. Dogs today seem to show happiness, sadness, affection and many other feelings that humans have. A mother seems to care for her pups in the same way that human mothers care for their children.
But are they the same feelings that people feel? We may have no way of knowing if they are the same feelings. They are the dog version of these feelings. We don’t know if a dog’s feelings are as complex or as rich as a human’s feelings. We don’t know if their feelings are as intense, or more intense or less.
Do they have emotions? The answer seems to be a definite yes. But whether those feelings are the same as the feelings that a human has may be unknowable.