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Tigra Scientifica: What’s up, dog?

Tigra Scientifica: Whats up, dog?
Savannah N. Miller/Photo Editor

If you’ve ever had a pet dog, then you’ve probably noticed how perceptive they can be to your emotions. When you’re sad they are there to comfort you, and when you’re ecstatic they are jumping up and down too. 

Scientists in the past have suggested that this is mere coincidence; there’s a long-standing belief that animals don’t have feelings because they aren’t as intelligent as humans. However, a recent study published in The Royal Society by Albuquerque and colleagues found that dogs have the ability to recognize human emotions and respond accordingly.

In this study, seventeen healthy adult dogs were tested for responses to emotional stimuli. The stimuli presented were images and sounds with either positive or negative connotations; for example, a picture of a smiling human was projected at the same time a soothing human vocalization was played, and the dogs’ reactions to these stimuli were recorded and analyzed. 

The study found that in this sample of domesticated dogs there was a preference for congruent, or agreeable, faces in over two thirds of the trials. These findings suggest that dogs have the ability to extract emotional content from simple auditory and visual stimuli without any previous training.

Domesticated dogs have the ability to recognize human emotions through facial expressions, which has roots in evolutionary biology. 

For many thousands of years, dogs and humans have lived in harmony. House pets have evolved alongside human beings, and this means that dogs can understand what pet owners mean with just a look and react accordingly. Albuquerque and colleagues attest to this, saying, “The recognition of emotional expressions allows animals to evaluate the social intentions and motivations of others.” Domesticated dogs depend solely on humans for food, shelter and attention. 

Thus, it is important for them to have the ability to recognize human emotions and intentions through facial expressions and auditory stimuli, including verbal commands, or they would not continue to thrive in modern society.

Michael Childress, Ph.D., a behavioral ecology professor at Clemson University, agreed with this study’s findings and its applications in human-canine relationships, saying, “Dogs rely on reading human expressions to know what we want them to do next. Dog-handler teams that have the best communication are most likely to win in events such as obedience, agility, herding and Frisbee dog Freestyle.” 

Without the ability to read facial expressions, dogs participating in these events would be much less successful. Dr. Childress also pointed out a major pitfall of this study: the authors’ failure to reference Charles Darwin’s book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.” This major resource, published in 1872, explored the complex relationships between animals and humans a century and a half before this new study was published.

Studies like this one show that humans and dogs have co-evolved to understand each other on a more intimate level than other animal-

human relationships. 

So go home, look your dog in the eyes and tell them that you love them. They’ll know what you mean.

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