Can Dogs Read Human Emotions?

Can dogs read human emotions?How tuned in are dogs to our emotions, thoughts and moods? I have always believed my canine children certainly knew when I was happy or angry, irritated or melancholy. Now the results from scientific studies are backing up the belief that dogs truly recognize emotions in humans and other dogs.

Daniel Mills, a Vet Professor from Lincoln University, tested 17 pet dogs in front of a screen and flashed up images and audio from other dogs to gauge their reactions. He found that they were combining what they could see and hear to evaluate the mood of the dog in the picture. Tests conducted using human facial expressions and sound found similar results.

According to psychologist Dr Kun Guo, “Previous studies have indicated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions from cues such as facial expressions, but this is not the same as emotional recognition. 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.”

Other research has also reinforced these theories. Dr Elisabetta Palagi of the University of Pisa found that “A dog while playing with another dog can read their motivation and the emotional state of the other dog by mimicking the same expression and body movement of the other dog.” Her findings have been published in the Royal Society Open Science’s journal.

Researchers working with the Unit of Cognitive Primatology and Primate Center in Rome videotaped dogs playing in a park in Palermo, Italy. Among their conclusions was that “rapid mimicry” is an automatic and involuntary response, rather than the result of training.

The science is not settled pertaining to what degree dogs (and other animals) can actually read people’s emotional states as opposed to just reacting to their physical cues. Dr John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science is author of Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet. He says that “domestic dogs are exquisite readers of body-language, both that of other dogs, and, uniquely, our own – which is why they’re so easy to train. They also love to play, so quickly learn that imitating the actions of their play-partner means that the game goes on for longer.”

Dogs presented with a series of facial expressions on screen

I have found the canine-human connection especially strong in my work with dog shelters like at Peaceable Kingdom in Whitehall, PA. These dogs have to get used to many volunteers coming and going and they respond to everyone’s different personalities. When the public is looking for a dog to adopt, they know who they want to go home with.

From my experience, the abandoned dogs know right away if you genuinely feel love for them. They pick the people they like best and choose them over others.They don’t call me the “Chihuahua Whisperer” for nothing!

I think some dogs read emotions better than others. My dogs are used to being treated the same whether or not I’m in a good mood. The dogs that come in as strays or have been abused are more aware of human emotions. They have to be in order to survive.

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