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The Uncanny Ways Your Dog Reads Your Moods

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dogs detect human emotions

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research suggests that what we suspect about our dogs’ ability to sense our moods, is more than conjecture
  • A 2015 study shows dogs can distinguish between happy and angry human faces (and they don’t like angry expressions!)
  • Research also shows that dogs can sense how we’re feeling by listening to our vocal tone and the sounds we make
  • Dogs can also use their very sensitive noses to detect human emotions

As dog parents, most of us are convinced our canine family members read our moods and respond accordingly. What else could explain the sweet way your dog tries to comfort you when you’re sad, slinks away when you’re mad, or appears happy when you’re happy?

In case you had any doubt, you’re not imagining things — your furry friend really is able to read your emotions and really does react to your moods, for better or worse.

Dogs Can Distinguish Between Happy and Angry Faces

A 2015 study confirmed that pet dogs can most definitely discriminate emotional expressions in human faces.1 A group of dogs were first trained to associate pictures of happy or angry faces with a treat reward. The dogs were shown pictures of half faces (either the upper half or lower half of a face) showing happy or angry emotions.

Half were given a treat when they touched their nose to a happy face while the other half were rewarded for touching the angry faces. The dogs were then tested using pictures of faces they hadn’t seen before or showing parts of the face that were new to the dog (so a dog that had previously seen the lower half of a face would be shown the upper half).

The results showed the dogs were able to differentiate between the different emotions. According to Dr. Kun Guo, a psychologist and expert in human-animal interaction at the University of Lincoln:

"Showing dogs only half of the face and then the other half separately means they can't rely on the shape of the eyes or the mouth — they must have some sort of template in their mind … So it looks like they can really discriminate between happy and angry."2

The researchers speculated that dogs probably used their memories of real emotional human faces to help them complete the experiment successfully. Interestingly, during the training portion of the study it took the dogs about three times longer to learn to touch an angry face. It seemed to the researchers the dogs didn’t like and didn’t want to touch an angry face.

Our Dogs Pick Up Emotional Cues When We Speak

The average dog understands about 165 different words, although they may learn many more if you train them to.3 It’s known that dogs pay attention to the tone of voice and the pitch and rhythm in human speech. In addition, research suggests dogs also sense a difference between the verbal and emotional components of speech.4

Dogs appear to process emotional cues and meanings of words in different hemispheres of the brain, similar to humans. They also pay attention to human body language, taking note of posture and eye contact, for instance.

Dogs will follow your gaze similarly to a 6-month-old infant, but only if you convey the intention of communication, which suggests they’re quite in-tune with your communicative signals.5 Dogs have even been shown to experience cross-species empathy in response to a crying baby.

In humans, levels of the stress hormone cortisol tend to rise in response to an infant crying, which is said to be a primitive form of empathy. Research shows that dogs, too, experience increases in cortisol levels at the sound of a baby’s cry. They also display a combination of submissive and alert behavior in response to the cries. According to the study, published in Behavioral Processes:

“These findings suggest that dogs experience emotional contagion in response to human infant crying and provide the first clear evidence of a primitive form of cross-species empathy.”6

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Dogs Also Detect Emotion Through Scent

Believe it or not, in addition to being able to sense our emotions through our facial expressions, our vocal tone and the sounds we make, dogs also use their amazing sense of smell to inform them about how we’re feeling.

In 2018 I visited Dr. Biagio D’aniello and his team of Italian researchers who set out to answer this question: “Do human body odors (chemosignals) produced under emotional conditions of happiness and fear provide information that is detectable by pet dogs (in this case, Labrador and Golden Retrievers)?”7

For the study, 8 human volunteers watched a 25-minute video designed to provoke emotional states of either fear or happiness. The volunteers’ sweat was collected on pads as they watched the video, and then the samples were pooled to obtain composite “fear sweat” and “happiness sweat” samples. There was also an unscented control sample.

The 40 study dogs were fitted with heart rate monitors. Each dog was placed in a small room with his owner and a stranger who had not provided a sweat sample. The two people were seated, reading magazines, and not purposely interacting with the dog.

The samples (either fear or happy sweat, or no scent) were diffused into the room from an open vial containing the sweat pads. The dogs were able to sniff the vial itself, but they weren’t able to directly touch the pads.

Behind the scenes, for 5-minute periods the researchers evaluated the dogs’ heart rate, body language, movements toward and away from the owner and the stranger, and stress-related behaviors. To goal was to learn whether the dogs would show a consistent set of behaviors in response to the three conditions.

The dogs exposed to the happy sweat sample had fewer and shorter interactions with their owners, and more interactions with the strangers in the room, indicating they felt relaxed enough to check out strangers, and didn’t need to seek reassurance from their owners.

The dogs exposed to the fear sweat sample displayed more frequent and longer-lasting stress-related behaviors, in some cases, for the entire 5-minute period. These dogs sought out their owners rather than the strangers, indicating they were looking for reassurance because they felt stressed, and also had consistently higher heart rates than the dogs exposed to the happy sweat sample and the control sample.

“While the dogs were clearly responding emotionally to the scent of fear,” writes dog expert Stanley Coren Ph.D., “it seemed as though their response mirrored the emotion that they were detecting in that they were acting in a fearful manner themselves.

There was no evidence of aggression toward either the owner, the stranger, or the scent dispensing apparatus.”8

Now that science has proved dogs can see, hear and even smell our emotions, and that they react to all that sensory input, you can take steps to increase your own pet’s comfort and happiness, and decrease his stress by modifying your interactions with him. Your goal should be to gain and maintain his trust by making him feel safe and loved in your presence.

Toward this end, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re feeling when you’re around your dog, as well as the emotions you direct toward him. This is especially critical in situations you know will be stressful for him, for example, veterinary visits.