Dogs Use a Human-Like Technique to Read Our Emotions

Pooch sees it in your face and hears it in your voice. 

Your dog knows those feels, brah. In fact, your pooch knows your emotions because it sees and hears them. According to new research by University of Lincoln psychologists, dogs combine separate human signals — our facial expressions and our tones — to interpret our emotions.

“Until today, we only had evidence that primates (rhesus monkeys and chimps) recognize emotions of animals in the same species,” Natalia Albuquerque, lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Sao Paolo, tells Inverse. Moreover, what’s now unique to dogs — and humans — is the ability to recognize emotions of different species, though Albuquerque admits it’s an understudied area.

In the recent study, the researchers presented 17 untrained dogs with paired photographs — one of a stranger smiling and one of the stranger frowning — and an unfamiliar voice speaking Brazilian Portuguese in a happy or angry tone (or speakers spouting white noise as a control). The experiment was repeated with dog photos paired with playful or aggressive barks.

Dogs correctly looked at the facial expression that matched the tone 67 percent of the time. This striking result indicates “that dogs possess at least the mental prototypes for emotional categorization.”

(a) Schematic apparatus. R2: researcher, C: camera, S: screens, L: loudspeakers, P: projectors, R1: researcher. (b) Examples of stimuli used in the study: faces (human happy versus angry, dog playful versus aggressive) and their correspondent vocalizations.

This isn’t the first study to examine if dogs can differentiate between human emotions. Dogs can tell if you’re smiling just from your eyeballs, points out a Current Biology report in February 2015. But the new experiment was the first to ask dogs to combine two different signals into one emotion; it suggests the dogs aren’t just responding to what a happy person looks like because happy people give dogs belly rubs — the dogs are processing the signals to recognize the emotions of strangers. Are the dogs relying on our eyes or mouths or some other combination of cues to read our feelings? That’s what we don’t know, says Albuquerque.

The study also hasn’t answered why dogs have this skill. Is this ability special for dogs, a result of some 15,000 to 30,000 years of domestication? Is it simply that dogs are easier to study in laboratory environments, than, say cats? Or, if we open the door for dogs, does this mean your cat might be able to understand that when you scream, “WHO’S A GOOD KITTEN??!!!” — and as long as you do it with a smile — it will understand you’re pleased that it no longer poops on the floor?

“We’re not 100 percent sure,” Albuquerque says. Considering the shared evolutionary history between humans and dogs, it would be “very valuable” for a dog to look at someone and decide if that person is in a mood to dole out ear-scratches or kicks. But uncertainty arises because this is a young research topic, and one dominated by canines — they’re great test subjects, already habituated to humans. We can’t say that only dogs recognize our emotions, but they’re the only ones we know about now.

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