Science

Man’s best friend: Dogs can read human emotions – even if they have never met them before

New research shows that dogs are able to read human emotions, proving they really are man’s best friend

dog-rex

A paw on the leg, a nose nuzzling against your arm, maybe even a hop onto your lap -dogs always seem to know when you need extra love, even though they barely understand a word you say.

Now new research has revealed that dogs are able to recognise emotions in humans – an ability that has never previously been observed in any other animal.

Scientists at Lincoln University presented 17 domestic dogs with images of people looking happy or playful, and others of people looking angry or aggressive.

They also played audio clips of people speaking in harsh tones, and others of people speaking in soft soothing tones, without any prior training.

The team found the dogs spent significantly longer looking at the facial expressions that matched the emotional state of the vocalisation.

Dog-and-emotions

An example of the images shown to the dogs

 

This indicates that dogs have mental representations of positive and negative emotional states in humans, according to the scientists.

“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,” said Professor Daniel Mills, who co-authored the report.

“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.”

He added that the dogs used in the trials had received no prior training or period of familiarisation with the subjects in the images or audio, suggesting that dogs’ ability to combine read emotions in humans 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,” he said.

The findings from a team of animal behaviour experts and psychologists the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters .

The news follows a similar investigation last year by scientists at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, which also aimed to test whether dogs can recognise human emotions.

Using a touch screen and reward system, one group of dogs were shown a woman’s happy and angry face side by side, receiving a treat if they picked the happy face.

The study also had another group of dogs, who were rewarded for touching the angry faces on the screen.

The scientists found that both groups of canines managed to identify the differences between the two expressions, and also noted that dogs rewarded for touching the happy faces were significantly faster than the others.

“It seems that dogs dislike approaching angry faces,” said Ludwig Huber from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna.

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