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Dogs and Their Ability to Recognize Human Emotion

If you’ve been a long-time dog owner, you’ve probably noticed how your four-legged, furry companions can detect when you’re sad or happy or angry. That’s because dogs can recognize human emotion; a new study seeks to establish this, explaining how canines are able to perceive feelings and process this sensory information. Until now, only primates and humans are thought to have this ability to recognize emotions.

Previous studies have revealed that dogs’ ability to understand human emotion was primarily derived from our facial expressions or other cues that they use to link to emotional states. Study coauthor Prof. Daniel Mills seeks to test the wisdom of older theories.

“It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognize human emotions,” Prof. Mills, of School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln in the U.K., said. “Many dog owners report anecdotally that their pets seem highly sensitive to the moods of human family members.”

“However, there is an important difference between associative behavior,” he explained, “such as learning to respond appropriately to an angry voice, and recognizing a range of very different cues that go together to indicate emotional arousal in another.”

Published in the journal Biology Letters, this new study seeks to establish the idea that dogs use the sensory information to form mental images for certain emotions. For this study, the researchers showed different pictures of humans and dogs to 17 domestic canines; the pictures displayed a wide range of emotional states, from happy to angry. The researchers also played audio clips of human voices and barks that convey positive or negative emotions.

The dogs matched the emotions involved in the audio clip with that of the pictures shown to them. When an angry voice was played, they spent much time looking at a picture conveying an angry facial expression.

“Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognize emotions in humans and other dogs,” Prof. Mills stated.


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