Many dog lovers swear that their dog knows exactly how they’re feeling at any given time. Does your dog pick up on your excitement when you get some good news and start bounding around the lounge room in a joyous explosion of fur, barking and a madly wagging tail? Or have you ever been feeling blue, completely down in the dumps, when your four-legged friend gently rests her head in your lap, gives you a loving lick and seems to be doing everything she can to cheer you up?
The idea that dogs can tell what we’re thinking has long been dismissed as sentimental rubbish, and as another example of our tendency to attribute human emotions to our four legged-friends (known as anthropomorphisation). But now there’s finally some scientific proof to back up the widely held belief among dog lovers that dogs can pick up on their owners’ emotions.
In a study released in January of 2016, researchers from Britain’s University of Lincoln and Brazil’s University of Sao Paolo proved that dogs can recognise the emotions not only of humans but also of other dogs.
The researchers took 17 healthy adult dogs, all of which had been properly socialised, and showed them a selection of images and sounds designed to produce a certain emotional state. The images and sounds featured both humans and dogs and ranged from happy and playful through to angry or aggressive — for example a smiling or frowning face.
While looking at each image, the dogs were played a vocalisation (a voice or a bark). The sound either matched the emotion shown in the image, conflicted with the image, or was completely neutral. Steps were also taken to ensure that the dogs didn’t respond to cues they already knew. The human vocalisation sounds the dogs listened to were in a language none were familiar with, while the faces shown in the images were those belonging to strangers. All the dogs in the study were also untrained, so they wouldn’t respond to any familiar, already learned cues.
The researchers then studied the reactions of each dog to these image/sound combinations and examined which ones captured their attention for the longest period — and the results, which were published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters were very interesting indeed.
The 17 dogs in the study stared significantly longer at the images which were matched with the same emotional tone, more often than not managing to match the tone of the vocalisation with the human facial emotion.
“Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorization of emotional states,” said researcher Dr. Kun Guo from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology.
“This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”
This last sentence really emphasises just how an important discovery this is. The study also suggested that dogs may have developed the ability to recognise emotions through visual and auditory cues as a way to establish and maintain long-term relationships with humans. Dogs are social animals, which makes this skill a hugely important one for our canine friends.
Co-author of the study, Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognise human emotions. Many dog owners report anecdotally that their pets seem highly sensitive to the moods of human family members.
“However, there is an important difference between associative behaviour, such as learning to respond appropriately to an angry voice, and recognising a range of very different cues that go together to indicate emotional arousal in another.
“Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs.”
So the next time your dog seems to be reading your mind, he might be doing exactly that!