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Can dogs literally see our feelings?

Marcela OteroMay 10, 2017

Ask any dog owner, and they will confidently tell you precisely how their pet telepathically knows exactly what they’re feeling at all times, and how their emotional connection is beyond words, delving into the incandescently spiritual. While this may sound like a lot of bunkum and balderdash, it turns out there may be some hard science behind this seemingly irrational conviction.

A series of unrelated studies have all recently concluded, via different methodologies, that dogs actually can tell what humans are feeling, or at least that they are able to accurately read human facial expressions. A study done on eleven dogs at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, found that pups can accurately distinguish between happy and angry facial expressions. It is likely that animals developed this ability because it allows them to anticipate humans’ behavioral responses and adjust their own conduct accordingly. Canines, however, excel over other mammals at their ability to correctly discriminating human behavioral cues.

Credit: Image courtesy of University of Helsinki

Researchers at the University of Helsinki found that the social gazing behavior of dogs resembles that of humans, beginning with observation of the eyes, which arrest longer attention than the nose or mouth areas. Interestingly, dogs’ viewing behavior was dependent on the species being viewed. When faced with a picture of an aggressive dog, the response was longer looking, but the same threat in a human face provoked immediate avoidance. This may mean that domestication made canines sensitive to human threat signals, and conditioned an automatic appeasement response. This is the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in non-primates, providing support for Darwin’s proposal that human and animal emotional expressions have common evolutionary roots.

An even more intriguing empirical experiment was jointly carried out by a team of animal behavioral experts and psychologists at the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. They presented 17 untrained dogs with images of human and canine facial expressions in combination with emotional vocalizations. To avoid word habituation bias, they used portuguese with British dogs and vice versa. When the dogs were listening to positive sounds, they spent significantly more time looking at the matching human and dog facial expressions.

Essentially, since this implies that dogs have the ability to integrate two different forms of sensory information into a perception of emotion, it means they have an internal system of emotional categorization. As the dogs hadn’t been previously been trained or familiarized with the task, the implication is that canines have an intrinsic ability to recognize feelings. Among animal groups, this had previously only been found in primates. As an evolutionary trait, this makes sense. A dog’s ability to detect emotional cues in people would have assisted it in living with humans.

The domestication of dogs and other animals has long been associated with living together in close quarters within relatively small communities. The beginning of this custom marks the 32,000-year-old split between dogs and wolves that set them on divergent evolutionary paths— during which it seems that, as a result of their communal relationship, humans and canines developed some of the same traits over the same time period. The positive selection for genes responsible for digestion, metabolism and some neurological processes overlap for both people and dogs, which suggests a joint genomic evolution.

A similar, previous study done on contagious yawning showed that dogs yawn more in response to their owner’s yawns than to strangers’. In humans, contagious yawning occurs as a form of empathy, and if we extrapolate that to dogs, this might indicate a rudimentary form of empathy, resulting from an emotional connection. It’s been well established that emotional contagion is common in primates, but interestingly, Teresa Romero’s findings are the first to document yawning catching between species.

Dogs at the MR Research Centre (Budapest). Image Credit: Borbala Ferenczy

Olfaction is believed to be canines’ most powerful sense and possibly their most important one, as they truly do navigate the world through their noses. An Emory University neuro-imaging study about odor processing in dogs found that the scent of their owner sparked activation in the “reward center” of their brains. The dogs in the experiment were exposed to five different smells—self, familiar human, strange human, familiar dog, and strange dog. Significantly, the familiar human was not the handler, but very specifically the dog’s owner, and this scent was prioritized over anything or anyone else.

Comparable results were obtained in Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, when researchers studied canine brain activity in response to different human and dog sounds, including voices, barks and the meaningful grunts and sighs both species emit. Surprisingly, the study revealed a high degree of correspondence on the ways in which human and dog brains process emotionally laden vocal sounds. Across both species, joyful noises particularly light up the auditory cortex, underscoring the strong communication system behind the human/dog bond.

In short—across a wide variety of studies, the conclusions are remarkably similar. Dogs are not just evolutionarily conditioned by their domestication to recognize behavioral cues and respond in specific ways, they’re also physically hardwired to pick up on human and canine emotions. The bond between a dog and their human is very specific and very special, and as with family, dog owners’ instinctive hunches and non-verbal communication with their pets are very often correct. The science is in—and we can all relish the fact that our dogs experience our emotions just as strongly as they do their own.

Cover image: Golden Retriever, Miss Sybel from the Golden Arrow (Source: Marlies Kloet)