Do our dogs know how we feel?

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16 July 2018
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Can our dogs really read our emotions? Jackie Boyd examines the evidence…

“How many times have you felt a deep connection with your dog? Have you ever been really happy and excited and found that your dog is apparently desperate to share your joy? Or have you ever felt really sad — perhaps even been crying — and found that your dog appears to change his behaviour, sometimes in a comforting and almost sympathetic way?

“Many dog owners have described situations where they feel that their dogs appear to understand how they are feeling, and this creates a deep and powerful bond between person and pet. However, what exactly are our dogs responding to when they seem to react to our emotional states, whether positive or negative? Also, are we genuinely seeing an emotional connection between different species, or do we just really want to think our dogs have a deeper connection with us?

“On a personal level, I am confident I have an awareness of how my dogs feel, at least in as much as a human can understand the apparent emotional state of another species. However, as a scientist, I also recognise that, in many cases, I probably want to feel I have a deep connection with my dogs, and perhaps I need to be wary of ascribing human emotions to them. It does raise an interesting point though: is it possible to study whether dogs can read our emotions and respond in an appropriate way?

“Studying the emotional state of different animal species is notoriously difficult and has long been a scientific challenge. This is further complicated when we recognise that different species not only ‘speak’ different physical languages, but also exhibit different behavioural responses to situations and stimuli. As a result, working out if dogs can read and respond to human emotions is incredibly difficult! You might even ask: do we need science to answer this question? Well, getting a robust scientific answer will always be preferable to anecdote and speculation.

“And it might even help us to understand further how our dogs think and feel, and how we can live more successfully with them. Scientific findings will also add credibility to the wider appreciation and understanding of the human-dog bond, and also to the value of dogs in society.

“Recently, animal scientists have started to examine the emotional link between humans and dogs (as well as other species, including horses) and some exciting results have appeared. It seems that dogs can not only recognise the emotional state of other dogs, but, significantly, they can also recognise it in humans. Dogs appear to achieve this through both hearing and sight, which is significant as this had previously only been identified as a capability of certain primate species.

“When exposed to an image of a face, paired with a vocal sound that ‘matched’ the expression on the face, dogs spent more time looking at these than at pictures paired with a sound that did not ‘match’, for example a smiling face matched with an angry tone of voice. This was interpreted as the dogs having an innate ability to effectively recognise and interpret the emotional state shown, especially as none of the dogs involved in the study had been specifically trained for the experiment.  

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“What was significant, however, was that the dogs appeared to have a greater response to dog images and sounds than to human stimuli, although perhaps this is not surprising, given that the ability to recognise emotions in your own species will have clear social advantages in maintaining stability and congeniality.

“Why is it then that dogs seem to show at least some ability to recognise human emotional states? Thousands of years of co-evolution and domestication (at least 15,000 years and probably much longer) will have had some impact. Humans will have selectively bred those dogs who successfully lived around and with them. This will have likely resulted in dogs with good human social skills, as evidenced by the number of breeds and types now acknowledged to be especially people or family friendly.

“On this basis, it is probably no real surprise that dogs have acquired at least some ability to recognise and respond to human emotional states, in the same way that we are constantly learning about our dogs’ body language and what it is telling us. You just need to pick up your dog’sfood bowl or lead to realise how good  our dogs are at responding to our own behavioural cues, even very subtle ones.

“The fact that dogs often demonstrate strong attachments to their owners mean that they are good at recognising unusual behaviour from us. Indeed, there might even be a learned aspect to respond to certain cues and stimuli in a particular way, and many of our dogs probably exploit this to their advantage — just think about that the next time you get sad puppy-dog eyes staring at you while you tuck into some nice food! Whether this is the result of our dogs recognising, understanding, and responding to our emotional state is difficult to confirm fully, but science is at least starting to provide some robust evidence that, indeed, they can.

“So, how can you apply and use this evidence when living with and training your dog? One of the best applications is simply acknowledging that your dog will respond to the emotion you are displaying both through your facial expression, body language, and verbal cues. If you have had a busy day, are tired, and perhaps a bit stressed, maybe trying to do a serious training session with your dog should be put off until another time. Equally, if you are happy and relaxed, your dog will probably respond in a more favourable way.

“Many years ago I was told by a dog trainer that I should always smile gently at my dogs when I was pleased with them and what they had done, and that I should never wear sunglasses when training as they hid what my eyes were ‘saying’. I cannot but think that science is now catching up with what he already knew!”

Did you know?

  • If your dog sees you yawn, he will often ‘catch’ the yawn!
  • Research shows that dogs actually have really good memories and can remember very specific events.