Guest post written by Anne Darwen

If you have a feeling that your dog can pick up on your moods, because you notice that they lighten up when you are happy and try to console you when you are feeling sad, the good news is, you’re probably right!

For the first time in history, researchers have demonstrated that dogs do actually recognize humane emotions by combining information obtained from different senses – a talent once thought to be possessed only by humans.

Dog licking lady

The research was undertaken by psychologists and behavior specialists at the University of Lincoln in the UK and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, and published in the journal, Biology Letters.

The researchers showed 17 dogs images and sounds which expressed combinations of happy and angry expressions in humans and dogs. While the photos were shown to the dogs, the corresponding sound recording was played to them (comprising human voices and barks). The researchers noted that the dogs spent much more time looking at the images when the sound recording corresponded to the emotional state on the picture. This was true for both the images of humans and dogs.

The study showed that a dog can collate sensory information from two different sources to formulate a coherent understanding of emotion. Importantly, the dogs in the study had received no prior training in understanding emotions, suggesting that their ability to make coherent sense out of several cues, is instinctive.

A previous yet equally fascinating study had previously shown that dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry human faces. Published in the journal Current Biology and undertaken by scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, the study involved training dogs to discriminate between photos of the same person making happy or angry faces. In all cases, the dogs were presented with only the top or bottom part of the face. After training the dogs using 15 picture pairs, their ability was tested using:

  • the same half of the faces they were shown, but of different faces
  • the other half of the face they were shown during training
  • the other half of the new faces
  • the left half of the faces they were shown during training

The findings showed that dogs were able to select the aggressive or happy face more often than they would if they had to randomly pick these faces. Not only were the dogs able to recognize the expressions in faces they knew; they were able to adapt the cues they observed to the faces of total strangers.

The scientists also found that dogs tended to respond better to happy faces than to angry ones; they took longer to learn to associate an angry face with a food reward, suggesting they had previously learned to avoid people who are angry or in an aggressive mood.

The studies show that the bond between humans and dogs is indeed an extraordinary one. We already know that having a dog benefits us in many ways, for instance, by helping keep asthma at bay

Dog with sad person

in little children. However, the new findings show that there are important emotional bonds which are formed as well. It is not uncommon to read that dogs are being relied upon to help patients affected by stress – everyone from military vets battling Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), to individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction in inpatient centers. Dogs have been found to significantly lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol, in human beings. Dogs are also helpful in mindfulness training; the latter emphasizes the importance of remaining ‘in the present moment’, instead of giving in to the fight or flight response by escaping (physically or through drugs and alcohol), or succumbing to depression, anxiety, or even a full-blown panic attack.

The fact that dogs can read our emotions and react accordingly suggest that their stress busting benefits can be attributed to the deep connections with form with them. As pet owners, we should also be aware of the way our expressions and tone of voice affect our dogs. We should aim to reduce stress and aggression within the home, to benefit our pets as well as ourselves. Most pet lovers can instantly senses when their pooches are suffering from stress – dogs may shake, leave the room, avoid eye contact or take on a fearful expression. It is important to try to read their emotions as well as they read ours.

photo credit: Yohanna + Queen via photopin (license)
photo credit: Fuji love via photopin (license)