There are several great video clips on YouTube showing the dog’s excitement when their soldier owners return home after a lengthy absence. In “Dog sees Dad after being gone over 6 months”, the dog is clearly overjoyed at his master’s return. He sounds almost as if he is crying with joy. You’ve probably seen it but if not it is great viewing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC5DXGIC8s8).
I wish I could have filmed my own return home after a one month absence overseas. Cindie went absolutely beserk when she saw me come through the door. She rushed up to me first and then ran around in circles, prancing on her hind legs, uttering short woofs of excitement. Then back to me again and then off in a few more mad dashes and woofs.
This went on for quite a while as we got the luggage in and took it upstairs. Then she repeated the same pantomime all around the lounge before she finally calmed down. Mischa, our cat got a few gratuitous licks in the process when she too ventured forth to greet me.
So I started thinking about doggie emotions. Do dogs really experience emotions? How much of it is just what we humans assign to them based upon their body language and appearance?
Upon researching this question, I wasn’t surprised to learn that there has been quite a body of study done on the subject. Ideas have changed considerably over time. Early theories assumed complex emotions and ability to understand language but these ideas were overtaken by those who considered animals were nothing more than programmed machines (French philosopher and scientist René Descartes, Nicholas de Malebranche).
Science has clearly progressed a long, long way beyond this line of thought. We know now that dogs possess the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. They have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which, in humans, is involved with feeling love and affection for others.
However whilst they have the same neurology and chemistry that people have, you cannot assume that a dog has the same emotional range as a human. In the same way that not all people have the full range of all possible emotions, dogs appear to have a more limited range. In fact infants and very young children also have a limited range of emotions. Their emotions develop over the time so that when they reach adulthood, they have a broad range of emotional experiences.
Research now suggests that the mind of a dog is roughly equivalent to that of a two to two-and-a-half years old child. This conclusion holds for most mental abilities as well as emotions. So whilst our dogs clearly have emotions they have far fewer kinds of emotions than found in adult humans. But joy and excitement are certainly two of the emotions experienced early in human life so it is not unreasonable to think a dog is overjoyed and excited by the return of a loved one.
If you want to read further on this subject you may enjoy the comments of Cesar Milan, the American dog whisperer at http://www.cesarsway.com/tips/thebasics/Science-of-Canine-Emotions. Also refer to an article published in the Modern Dog magazine, http://moderndogmagazine.com/articles/which-emotions-do-dogs-actually-experience/32883.