Dogs understand human emotions according to a study

Have you ever felt that your dog understood how you felt? You were right! A study conducted jointly by the Universities of Lincoln, England, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, shows that the dog, true to its reputation as man’s best friend, would be able to perceive human emotions.

Whether he puts his paw on your leg, rubs his muzzle against your arm or jumps on your belly, the dog always seems to know when you need affection, even if he doesn’t understand a single word you say. This study shows that dogs may be able to recognize the emotions felt by humans, a faculty that has never been discovered in any animal before.

Scientists at Lincoln University showed 17 domestic dogs images of happy, playful people and others of angry or aggressive people. They also randomly combined sound clips of people speaking in an authoritative tone with those speaking in a soothing tone. The team showed that the dogs stopped longer on images that matched the emotion conveyed by the voice. This would indicate, according to the scientists, that the dogs would be able to make mental representations of positive and negative human emotions.

Dogs, capable of associating human emotions with each other

“There has been a long debate for a long time about whether dogs can recognize human emotions. Many dog owners have anecdotally reported that their dogs seem to be highly sensitive to the moods of human family members,” says Professor Daniel Mills, who co-authored the report. “However, there is an important difference between associative behaviour, such as learning to respond appropriately to an angry voice, and recognizing a range of very different signals that indicate emotional arousal in others. Our findings are the first to show that dogs really do recognize emotions in humans”.

He added that the dogs used in the study had received no prior training or familiarization period with the subjects appearing in the pictures or sound clips. This suggests that the dogs’ ability to associate the emotions perceived in humans with each other would be intrinsic to them. “The dog is a highly social species, so such a tool could be very useful to them, and the detection of emotions in humans could be the result of several generations of domestication,” says Mills.

A similar study carried out last year

Last year, scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna had already tried to find out whether dogs could recognize human emotions. Using a touch screen and a reward system, they showed a group of dogs a series of two photos side by side of the face of the same woman, one happy and one angry. These dogs were rewarded if they touched the happy faces with their snout. Conversely, another group of dogs were rewarded if they chose the angry faces.

The study found that each group of dogs was able to identify the differences between the two expressions. The scientists also found that the dogs rewarded for touching happy faces were significantly faster than the others. “It seems that dogs don’t like to approach angry faces,” commented Ludwig Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna at the time.