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Do Dogs Understand Human Emotions?

Do Dogs Understand Human Emotions
Photo: Günter Hentschel

If you’re a dog lover this probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but recent research is showing that our dogs understand our emotions better than we thought. Your dog has probably snuggled in to close to you while you were sad or cuddled with you when you weren’t feeling well. Chances are, when you’re really happy your dog is in a great mood too.

Research from scientists at the University of Sao Paolo in Brazil and the University of Lincoln in Britain suggests that domestic dogs can recognize and distinguish between different states of mind in humans. It shows that dogs use voice characteristics and facial expressions to determine the state of mind of their human. So far it seems like canines (aside from humans, of course) are unique in their ability to surpass species boundaries to read emotions.

We can’t say that for sure, as there isn’t a lot of research dealing with other species’ abilities to read emotions, but from the information available it appears to be only humans and canines that have the ability. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters, and the method used is similar to the one performed to demonstrate the social understanding of human babies before they can speak.

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17 healthy adult dogs were shown images and played numerous sounds. These dogs were well socialized, and researchers measured which combinations of sounds and pictures held their attention the longest. There were two different screens in front of the dog, and they were shown an image that either conveyed anger or happiness.

While the picture was up on the screen, a sound would play that either conformed with the picture, conflicted with it or was completely neutral (basically static). Here is where it gets tricky – the dogs were given the task of processing the pictures and sounds of humans expressing emotions and other dogs expressing emotions too.

Do Dogs Understand Human Emotions
Photo: William Franklin

Researchers claim that the length of time the dog spent spontaneously looking at the image offers insight into whether or not he attached a social meaning to the emotion that was being displayed. They also say that it gave insight into whether the canine integrated other stimuli into making the attachment as well.

In order to be sure that the dogs were not responding to an emotional cue that they were already familiar with, the human voices spoke Brazilian Portuguese, a language that none of the dogs was familiar with. The faces were also unknown to all the dogs who took place in the study. The trial was performed with absolutely no training, meaning that the dogs wouldn’t have time to gather any information about the images or sounds before the study began.

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When a happy or angry vocalization was played, the dogs looked at the corresponding photo 67% of the time. That statistic held steady whether the vocalization and image came from a canine or a human, whether the human was a man or a woman and whether the emotion depicted was positive or negative. When the pictures were paired with static, the dogs did not focus on any of them.

Researchers did note that when the photo and the vocalization matched, the dogs did look longer at canine faces than they did at human faces expressing the same emotion. I would definitely call myself a dog lover, and I know that my dogs understand my emotions. I will say that we have had some dogs that seem to be much more in tune with human emotions than others, but they’ve all been able to understand emotions to some extent.

I’m sure much more research will be done on this topic in the near future, but I’d love to hear your opinion as well. Of course, we’re not researchers, but we are dog lovers and that definitely counts for something! Do you believe that your dog can understand your emotions?

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.