New Study Finds Dogs Really Do Understand How Their Owners Feel

Pooches are incredibly intuitive.

For many people, their dog isn't just a pet, it's a beloved member of the family. While most dog owners would attest that their dogs are highly in tune with their human emotions, there has been considerable debate how much of that is learned behavior and how much is anthropomorphizing the dog, which means assigning human qualities onto something that doesn't really have them.

To anyone who has owned a dog, there are some pretty clear cues that they seem to know what's going on. When we're really happy, they're playful. When we're sad, they are quiet and cuddly. When we're angry, they give us some space. Despite the fact that it may seem obvious that they're in touch with human emotions, it hasn't been officially studied whether they are actually reacting to emotions or just learning cues based on past experience.

This question has finally reached a definitive answer after finding that dogs do have an intrinsic ability to detect complex human emotions by combining a number of senses. The work was completed by an international team of scientists and the results were published in Biology Letters.

"[T]here 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," co-author Daniel Mills from the University of Lincoln noted in a news release. "Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs."

But how were the scientists able to make that distinction?

In order to test whether the dogs were responding to emotions out of familiarity or intuition, the researchers used combinations of dogs and humans that had never interacted before. The dogs were shown pictures of humans or other dogs expressing positive or negative emotions. The visual cue was also paired with a recording of someone shouting angrily or making pleasant noises or a dog barking aggressively or playfully.

The catch, however, is that the tone of the picture didn't always match the sound of the recording. In some instances, the happy picture was shown with sounds of an angry voice. The researchers found that when the feelings matched, happy or not, the dogs were much more engaged with the picture. This means that the dogs take in information from multiple sources and integrate it to understand the true meaning. 

This is the first time a non-primate animal has been shown to have such a keen, inherent understanding of complex emotions of their own species, and dogs join humans as the only animals known to respond to emotions across different species as well. The researchers believe this trait played an important role in the domestication of dogs, allowing them to really be man's best friend.

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