Is a dog sensitive to your emotions? Or is it just a coincidence that he seeks you out when you are emotionally distressed? Plenty of pet owners are comforted by a pair of puppy-dog eyes or a lick of the tongue when their dog catches them crying. Now, research suggests that dogs really do respond uniquely to tears.
Dr. Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer of the Department of Psychology at the University of London Goldsmiths College, developed a procedure in 2012 to examine if domestic dogs could identify and respond to emotional states in humans. In their finding, published in the journal Animal Cognition, eighteen pet dogs of different ages and breeds were exposed to four separate 20-second scenes in which either the dog's owner or an unfamiliar person pretended to cry, hummed in an odd manner, or carried out a casual conversation.
The dogs responded in a way that made it quite clear that they knew the difference and they knew which human was in trouble. Significantly, more dogs looked at, approached and touched the crying humans. They nuzzled and licked the person, the canine version of "there there." Some went to the odd-humming ones. No dogs responded to the talking ones. The dogs approached the crying person in a submissive manner consistent with empathic concern and comfort-offering.
The humming was added because it was new to the dogs and the researchers wanted to gauge whether the dogs were motivated by curiosity at the noise or whether they understood human distress. The experiments proved “the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking."
The study also found that the dogs responded to the person who was crying regardless of whether it was their owner or a stranger: Initially it was thought that dogs would respond only to their owners. According to the researchers “No such preference was found. The dogs approached whoever was crying, regardless of their identity. Thus they were responding to the person's emotion, not their own needs, which is suggestive of comfort-offering behaviour without discriminating among familiar and unfamiliar people.”
In another study, researchers at the University of Otago, New Zealand, put 90 dogs through their paces - showing some recorded images of babies laughing, crying and babbling. Professor Ted Ruffman said the dogs’ responses indicated that they could understand, they could tell the difference between a happy and an angry person, and a laugh from a cry. He said dogs who saw the crying baby searched behind the television screen to "find" the baby, cocked their head and expressed concern.
That dogs can understand us is something that every dog owner knows. They have been bred over centuries to be companions in every way to humans. Are they sensitive to our moods? Look at the phenomenon of yawning: if a human yawns, so does a dog.
Almost every dog owner has found out that when they are really sad, their dog acts differently toward them. A dog may approach its disturbed owner with a concerned look and, quite out of character, hunker down next to them as if to provide some emotional support. It is as if they are saying, “I know there's something wrong, I don't know what it is but I'm here for you, anyway.”
Many dogs slink away and hide or sulk when their human "parents" argue. A major fight between adults really seems to take its toll on some dogs. It appears from the dog's behaviour that he understands discord and does not want to be around it. Of course, it can be argued that raised voices might drive the dog away, but there are dogs that fret even when their owners purposely keep their voices low. It's almost as if you can't hide anything from a dog.
If an owner comes home and finds the home trashed by their dog, the guilty party will often be found hiding, perhaps with a hangdog look. Owners believe their dog is feeling guilty about what he has done. If you accept the guilt explanation, you must also accept that the dog is able to understand your feelings of disappointment or anger.
In another study done on 84 dogs and published in Animal Cognition in February 2013. Dr Juliane Kaminski, of the University of Portsmouth's Department of Psychology, has shown that when a human forbids a dog from taking food, dogs are four times more likely to disobey in a dark room than a lit room, suggesting they take into account what the human can or cannot see. The study shows dogs understand the human can't see them, meaning they understand the human perspective and realize that it is safer to steal food in the dark.
Can dogs read emotion on human faces? When humans look at a new face their eyes tend to wander left, falling on the right hand side of the person's face first. This "left gaze bias" only occurs when we encounter faces, and does not apply any other time, such as when inspecting animals or inanimate objects. A possible reason for the tendency is that the right side of the human face is better at expressing emotional states. Researchers at the University of Lincoln have now shown that pet dogs also exhibit "left gaze bias", but only when looking at human faces.
The more tests that take place, the more we realize that dogs are like humans. It seems odd that so many people want to be mean to them.
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