ike a lot of pet owners, I like to believe my dogs understand when I’m sad or angry or happy. In fact, I’ve been sick with the flu, and whenever I blow my nose, my dog Ella walks over to me, tail wagging, and plops her head on my lap. I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m sad and crying, and is trying to comfort me.
Is this just wishful thinking? Could it be that we pet owners are anthropomorphizing our dogs by believing they “get” us and our emotions?
No, according to a new study published this month in the scientific journal Biology Letters. Scientists discovered that dogs draw on sensory information, including facial expressions and vocal inflections, to recognize emotions in people as well as other dogs. This rare ability had not previously been observed in any other species besides humans.
A study last month also found that dogs, like humans, experience what’s called emotional contagion: They can pick up on and reflect another dog’s feelings, which indicates they are capable of experiencing empathy. And a previous study found that dogs can discriminate emotional expressions of human faces.
So what’s different about this latest study, conducted by animal behavior experts and psychologists from the University of Lincoln in the U.K. and University of Sao Paulo in Brazil? For the first time, it found that dogs form abstract mental representations of emotions – in other words, they’re not simply recognizing facial cues.
“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,” said researcher Dr. Kun Guo from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology.
Co-author Daniel Mills, a professor at the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said there’s an important difference “between associative behavior, 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. Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognize emotions in humans and other dogs.”
In the study, 17 healthy pet dogs saw images and heard sounds (a human voice or dog barking) that conveyed various combinations of positive and negative emotional expressions in people and dogs. The dogs were not familiar with the people and dogs in the photos.
The dogs viewed images showing either happy/playful or angry/aggressive emotions on two screens. Simultaneously, the audio of a human voice (speaking in a language unfamiliar to the dogs) or dog barking would play that either conformed or conflicted with the emotion in the image. Other times, the dogs would hear a neutral sound like static.
Researchers timed the dogs as they viewed the images and heard the sounds. The dogs spent much more time looking at facial expressions of people and dogs that matched the emotional states of the vocalizations. According to the researchers, this meant that instead of simply recognizing a facial expression, the dogs were able to put the image and audio together and understand the emotional state.
“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,” Guo said. “To do so requires a system of internal categorization 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.”
The fact that the dogs in the study received no training and were unfamiliar with the subjects in the images and audio “suggests that dogs’ ability to combine emotional cues may be intrinsic,” Mills said. “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.”
Not only is this study further proof of the strong bond dogs share with humans, but according to the researchers, it “may be key to understanding the evolution of social cognition.”
Read more: http://www.care2.com/causes/new-study-proves-dogs-really-do-get-us.html#ixzz3xaMxeWTA