From the myth of the guilty look to the exciting discovery of dogs evolving an inbuilt affection for humans, canine psychology is finding out more all the time
P robing the emotional lives of animals is new territory for biologists. A couple of decades ago, emotions were off-limits: scientists studying animal behaviour focused on what they could see animals doing, not how they might be feeling. Yet questions of animal emotion underpin animal welfare as Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1789, The question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but can they suffer? The growing animal rights movement forced us to consider animal emotion, and we now know a great deal about how the vertebrate brain generates and makes use of what we humans experience as feelings.
A whole other layer of complexity arises when thinking about the animals that share our homes, especially dogs . Most dog owners are convinced that their pets not only lead complex emotional lives, but also know what their owners are thinking. Study after study seems to provide support for these notions: most recently, boffins at the Messerli Institute in Vienna have shown that dogs can discriminate between human faces that are expressing different emotions, even when they can only see half the face, and the person in the photo is completely unfamiliar to them.
Unfortunately these studies, taken as a whole, provide little comfort for those who would like to believe that dogs are little different to humans, apart from an inability to talk. Not only is their emotional life distinctively different to our own, the evidence also suggests that the way they perceive us bears little resemblance to the way we think they do. Dogs probably only feel about half the emotions we do (but may, as a result, feel them more keenly). Emotions can be roughly divided into two kinds basic emotions or gut feelings, which arrive without warning, and reflective emotions, which require conscious thought.