Dogs can read human emotions, study finds
New research shows dogs can form abstract mental representations of negative and positive emotions and recognise how their owner is feeling
Published 13/01/2016 | 14:01
Dogs really are man’s best friend, it seems, as researchers have shown they can recognise emotions in humans by combining information from different senses.
They are the only creatures outside of humans who have been observed to have that ability.
A team of animal behaviour experts and psychologists from the universities of Lincoln and Sao Paulo showed dogs form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, rather than just displaying learned behaviours.
Seventeen domestic dogs in the experiment were shown pairs of pictures, either of a person, one happy, one angry, or of a dog looking playful or aggressive. They were then played sounds of playful or aggressive barks or a person’s voice saying “venha ca” (Portuguese for “come here”) in either a cheerful or angry tone.
The scientists found that the dogs tended to look at the picture that matched the tone of the voice, picking out the right human facial expression more often than not.
The dogs were even better at recognising the tone of other dogs.
Researchers in Vienna last year found that dogs could tell whether a person was happy or angry just by looking at their face.
But this study showed that dogs could go beyond recognising facial cues to actual emotional perception.
Researcher Dr Kun Guo, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology, said: “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.
"To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”
Co-author Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognise human emotions. 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 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.
"Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs.
“Importantly, the dogs in our trials received no prior training or period of familiarisation with the subjects in the images or audio. This suggests that dogs' ability to combine emotional cues may be intrinsic.
"As a highly social species, such a tool would have been advantageous and the detection of emotion in humans may even have been selected for over generations of domestication by us.”
Dogs are also able to imitate each other’s expressions, indicating they have the capacity for empathy.
The findings by the British and Brazilian universities are published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.