Do dogs have a sense of self?

Pets Can dogs love?

Unfortunately, scientists cannot ask the dogs how they feel for humans or other dogs and whether they feel anything at all. It's different with monkeys: a prime example is the chimpanzee Washoe, who was the first animal to learn sign language for the deaf and dumb from a behavioral scientist. She suffered two severe blows of fate when two of her boys died. The chimpanzee lady mourned like a human. But then her supervisor explained to her in sign language that he would bring her an adopted child. Washoe was then in great joy and formed the symbol for "Baby". By the time she adopted the adoptive child, she is said to have lived through moods such as sadness, joy, hope, and disappointment.

Emotion vs. feeling

One might assume that monkeys are an exception due to their proximity to humans. But that is not the case. Because it is certain that animals can feel emotions and show expressions of feeling. Numerous studies by behavioral researchers show this. But the aspect of love remains controversial.

Some researchers believe that animals merely display a species-specific behavioral repertoire. The pioneer of this theory is the US brain researcher Antonio Damasio from the University of Southern California. He differentiates between emotions and feelings, defining emotions as physical signals from the body. They are simply triggered by external influences. On the other hand, feelings are something that arises from the interpretation of these emotions in the brain. To do this, animals would need self-awareness - that is, knowledge of their own identity, which they do not have.

But the opposite view is also widespread in science. Charles Darwin already put forward the thesis in his book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" from 1872 that animals and humans are alike in terms of spirit, being and understanding. And this included feelings such as jealousy, ambition, distrust or humor, as well as the intellect. For Darwin, these emotions were an important survival mechanism that mammals other than humans also have.

To this day, the question of the relationship between emotion and feeling is controversial. For example, does a zebra show fear of a hunter or is it simply an automatic flight instinct? Does the lion enjoy the gathering of its pack or does it only show this behavior because it has so far contributed to its survival? So do mammals really feel fear, joy, sadness, suffering or love? But what really moves the animals in their innermost being remains unfathomable for humans. It cannot be objectively proven.

The I-consciousness

The so-called mirror test can provide an indication of a higher consciousness or an ego-consciousness in an animal. In the self-perception experiment, artificial features are attached to the test animals' bodies - for example, a red dot painted on a spot that the animal cannot see without a mirror. Then the animal comes in front of a mirror and you can see how it reacts: Does its behavior indicate that there is a mark on its own body? Some animals actually do this: several species of monkeys, Asian elephants and even dolphins recognize each other in the mirror. Dogs and cats, however, do not. Most dogs initially consider their own reflection in the mirror to be a conspecific.

However, that does not have to mean that dogs have no ego-consciousness, explained Helmut Prior from the Institute for Psychology at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt / Main to the magazine National Geographic: "This test may simply be unsuitable for dogs and cats, because a mirror does not match their perception of the world. " Because all animals that have passed the mirror test are living beings that rely on the sense of sight as the main source of information.

The fact that dogs fail the mirror test could be due to the fact that they determine their own identity and that of others primarily through the sense of smell or hearing.

Helmut Prior, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt / Main

The reflection, however, neither smells nor makes any noise. Therefore, it may not fit into the dog's world of experience. A study by scientists from Tomsk State University in Russia supports this assumption. They designed a kind of odor mirror test and looked to see if the dog could detect the smell of its own urine. Indeed, the test dogs paid far less attention to their own scent than to foreign smells. So dogs could actually have self-awareness. And for brain researcher Antionio Damasio that would be a prerequisite for developing real feelings.

Looked in the head

And what does modern brain research actually say on the subject? That now supports Darwin's point of view. Because emotions arise in the so-called limbic system - a brain region that humans have in common with many other mammals. It is connected to the brain stem.

But that alone is not enough for neurologist Joseph LeDoux from New York University in Manhattan. In an essay in the US Internet newspaper "Edge" he wrote that he saw two aspects of the brain structure that made it difficult to transfer our subjective experience to that of animals. According to the neurologist, the circuits associated with human consciousness include the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is also involved in short-term memory. This brain region is much more developed in humans than in other mammals and in some animals it is completely absent. The second point concerns the language. A large part of human experience is related to language. Therefore our consciousness also depends on it. In the end, LeDoux comes to the following conclusion: "I do believe that rats and other mammals, maybe even cockroaches, have sensations. But I don't see how to prove that."

Is it true love

So mammals in general can probably feel emotions. Norbert Sachser, Professor of Behavioral Biology at the Westphalian Wilhelms University of Münster, is of the same opinion. The zoologist deals explicitly with the emotional world of animals. In studies with wild guinea pigs, for example, he was able to show that they evidently show preferences when choosing their partners. In addition, animals have been shown to remain calmer in stressful situations when their partner is with them. Sachser is convinced that mammals have emotions. However, it is often difficult to say which individual feelings are involved.

Perhaps the hormonal balance of dogs allows conclusions to be drawn as to whether this feeling could be love. Researchers from the Japanese universities of Tokyo and Kanagawa have published a study on the effects of the hormone oxytocin in dogs in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This hormone is also known as the "cuddle hormone" and influences social bonding behavior. Oxytocin increases our willingness to approach or even trust others. In their canine experiment, the Japanese researchers found that the animals release the hormone more intensely when they spend time with their owners or with fellow dogs.

The Jena biologist Juliane Bräuer doubts whether the affection of dogs for humans is about love. At the Max Planck Institute for Human History in Jena, she researches the cooperative, communicative and metacognitive abilities of dogs. In an interview with DRadio Wissen, she said that love implies a romantic feeling. But she thinks this romantic dog love is "not particularly realistic". However, love is also just a matter of definition here.

In the last few years it has just been found that dogs can do a lot. They are extremely flexible, they are just adapted to the environment with people. They are very sensitive to our attention. They are very motivated to do things with us. It may well be that at some point you will also say that you can speak of love here if we define love in one way or another.

Juliane Bräuer, Max Planck Institute for the History of Man

But the fact is: dogs like some people and dogs better than others. And they especially like their own pack. Science will probably never be able to clarify whether this is really love. But most dog owners probably already know the answer to this question for a long time.

on TV | 03/15/2017 | 3 p.m.