Dogs might be furry, four-legged things who think garbage smells like French cologne and who prefer to poop in alignment with the earth’s magnetic field. But they’re more similar to humans than many thought. For instance, they have dreams, nightmares and even suffer from sleeping disorders. And now a group of scientists from England and Brazil say they’ve proven what canine-lovers have been saying for years: Dogs can recognize human emotions.
First off, it’s important to note that we already know canines can learn to pick up on different cues, such as vocal tone and facial expression, and respond in an emotionally appropriate manner. For example, if you smile and shout “Good boy!” they can recognize your display of happiness. If you frown and scold them for slobbering on your computer, they can comprehend you're throwing some shade.
But the new research, from a team of animal experts and psychologists at the University of Lincoln in England and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, suggests that pooches understand emotions more than superficially. For the study, 17 domestic dogs were presented with pairs of images and sounds of humans and dogs. The images were a combination of positive (happy, playful) or negative (angry, aggressive) emotions. (The pups were shown, for instance, a photo of a smiling human, while an angry voice sounded in the background.)
The results? The dogs spent more time looking at the photos when they were correctly matched with the appropriate emotion (such as a happy human face with a happy human voice; or an angry dog face with an angry barking voice).
Researchers say this means that canines are not merely identifying emotional states based on learned behaviors, and acting accordingly when they hear, for example, a screaming voice. Rather, they’re using different types of sensory input — in this case, sights and sounds — to determine how humans and other dogs are feeling. In other words, let's give pups more credit than Pavlov did. Those ear pricks and head tilts may be more than conditioned responses.
“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,” said researcher Dr. Kun Guo in a press release. “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.”
Cats weren’t included in the study, but our guess is they can also recognize human emotion and just DGAF.
This post has been updated.