Feeling Emotional? Your Dog Understands

By Nathaniel Scharping | January 13, 2016 6:00 pm

(Credit: Daz Stock/Shutterstock)

A new study from researchers at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom suggests that dogs do a better job of recognizing when we’re happy or angry than previously thought.

While everyone knows we can teach Rover to play fetch or roll over, these findings show that dogs have an innate ability to understand how we feel, likely a result of thousands of years of symbiotic living.

Man’s Empathetic Friend?

In the study, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, the researchers showed 17 domesticated dogs of various breeds a screen showing two faces: one happy and one angry. At the same time, the dogs heard a human speaking in an unfamiliar language and voicing either a positive or negative emotion. The experiment was then repeated with dog expressions and happy and angry barks. In both cases, the dogs looked significantly longer at the facial expressions that matched the emotional content of the sound they heard.

That dogs paid more attention to an image corresponding to an emotional sound from both humans and dogs suggests that dogs have an intuitive understanding of our emotions and what they mean. Furthermore, when the dogs were presented with the same emotion expressed two different ways, they understood the connection between them. This means that the dogs were able to pull relevant information from two different sources and recognize that they were similar.

Dogs’ Emotional Capacity

This experiment is the latest in a series of studies probing the intellectual and emotional capacities of dogs, says Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus in the department of psychology at the University of British Colombia, who wasn’t involved in the study. He’s also the author of multiple books on canine psychology.

Previous studies established that dogs recognize human expressions and vocalizations, and that they attach significance to them, Coren says. Such capabilities, he says, make perfect sense when considering that dogs have coexisted with humans for roughly 17,000 years, adapting and evolving along the way to live symbiotically with us.

“We basically created a different species,” Coren says.

Communication is Key

Like any relationship, effective communication is key to working together. And, at its core, emotion is fundamentally a means of communication. Our facial expressions and body movements give others a glimpse inside our heads, often whether we like it or not. For dogs to live with us, they had to learn to understand both our verbal and nonverbal messages — staying away from humans who looked angry, for example.

The most important finding of this latest study, according to Coren, is that dogs can not only read emotions in human voices and faces — as was previously known — but they can combine these bits of information to gain a more complete idea of what we’re thinking.

“What this does is it shows that dogs glue those things together and look for consistency in order to read the emotions. They’re responding like humans do,” Coren says.

Putting the Pieces Together

Having access to more pieces of information gives dogs a better means of interpreting the contradictory nature of human communications — saying something mean with a smile, for example. Clearly, one of those cues must be false, indicating that this communication is perhaps not to be trusted.

There is still plenty of room for error, of course. In human terms, the average dog is about as emotionally developed as a two-year-old, Coren says. Dogs understand basic emotions such as fear, anger, happiness and surprise, but more complex emotional states escape them. Weighty emotions such as guilt, pride and shame don’t really exist in a dog’s world.

Maybe that’s why dogs don’t mind peeing on the rug.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, emotions
  • Bren W

    Not just dogs, my cat comes and nuzzles me when I am upset, they all know.

    • JerseyCowboy

      Except the dogs do it to be nice and they love their humans. The cats do it because they want something. Scheming little devils they are.

      • Bren W

        not true, my little girl stays with me when I am crying then goes and curls up to sleep once I pull my self together.

    • stretchdaddy420

      Lol. My cat doesnt give a flying fart. I cant even yell at traffic without upsetting my dogs….

  • polistra24

    “guilt, pride and shame don’t really exist in a dog’s world.”

    Nonsense. All three are constantly visible.

    The opposite is far more likely. Dogs have complex emotions beyond our dull simple understanding.

    • JerseyCowboy

      That is one of the most unscientific things I’ve ever heard.

      • stephengn

        How do you propose science measure shame, pride or guilt?

        • Robin Goodfellow

          You wouldn’t have to ask if you were not a dog owner. Or if you are, you only own a dumb dog. The anwser is to observe their behavior.

          • stephengn

            I think you misunderstood me. I’m a dog lover. I totally believe that i’ve seen dogs feeling shame, guilt and even pride. But belief is not science. Science requires measurement. My point is that emotional states are not easily quantifiable.

          • Robin Goodfellow

            True. Behaviorial sciences and even philosophy suggest ways to start approaching this problem.

      • Philip Cook

        Of course dogs feel guilty,my border collie who i trained to help do things for me round the house since i was disabled in a crash.When i am a bit down & he ALWAYS ALWAYS KNOWS,then jumps up on my lap,then at times he mis judges it & hurts my legs or stomach etc,I call out & he goes down and turns and starts licking my hand or my face all the while looking at me with a guilty/remorseful look,so people who say they don’t are very much mistaken !! Most of the clever breeds are on par with a 4-5yr old bairn.

    • http://rowthree.com Andrew James

      The fact that they had to do a study to tell me my dog understands my emotion is proof enough that these researchers are not, and never have been, dog owners. To say they don’t know pride or shame is preposterous.

  • http://fark.com Troy

    My puppy definitely knows when it is a good idea to stay out of my way.

    • Milk Manson

      And how exactly would your puppy know this?

      I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt by waiting for a response before calling you a lowlife dirtbag, fair enough?

      • http://fark.com Troy

        wow…you sure jump to some outrageous conclusions asshat.

      • http://fark.com Troy

        where you at asshat? waiting for your lowlife dirtbag comment. The article clearly states how dog’s read our emotions and intuitively know what to do. My dog seems to know when I’d rather be left alone than have to pet him for hours on end. At least I don’t neglect mine like you.

        • Milk Manson

          I’m right here, tough guy. Outrageous conclusion, I don’t think so. Keeping in mind where this discussion is taking place, read your comment again and tell me it’s not creepy as heII.

          • http://fark.com Troy

            You make little sense asshat. My first comment was extremely broad but referred to what the article talked about. You are the only one who was talking about abuse. I feel sorry for your dog. It is probably very depressed to be living with such a moron who isn’t able to put together simple context clues.

          • Milk Manson

            My wife definitely knows when it is a good idea to stay out of my way.

            Yeah, this is not ambiguous in the slightest and obviously can only mean one thing: I’m the perfect husband. And I’ll attack anyone who thinks different.

            And getting all worked up and defensive… asshat this, moron that, I suppose that means you don’t have a temper?

          • http://fark.com Troy

            You need to get your little peen out of your dogs rear and think before you type. If I were to say my wife definitely knows when it is a good idea to stay out of my way, no one (absolutely no one) I know (and no one with any common decency) would assume I am abusing her. Why does your perverse mind jump to abusing others first?

          • Milk Manson

            Ok, you’re right. The internet is an always positive, glass half full, the sun will come out tomorrow, happy happy joy joy place. I was wrong about you and I’m mean to my dog and have no common decency. Enough already.

          • http://fark.com Troy

            The assumptions you make from a single sentence that is taken out of context (I bet there weren’t a lot of dog abusers reading an article about how their dog empathizes with them.) cannot be blamed on the internet. It is you whose mind first jumped to accusations of abuse. You are a sad, sad person.

          • Milk Manson

            fine, you done now?

          • http://fark.com Troy

            How could I ever tire of reminding you of how worthless you are to the human race?

  • life form

    It could be projection on my part, but if I come home and the contents of a garbage can has been spread over the kitchen floor, the dog’s body language and facial expression sure looks like guilt to me.
    I don’t think it is fear, i never strike the dog or even yell at her.

  • Bruce Johnson

    Dogs definitely show guilt expression. Anyone who says otherwise never owned a dog.


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