Study Suggests Your Pup Really Does Know How You Feel

Photographed by Alice Gao.
They get excited when you get excited, and they know just when to snuggle up to you on the couch after a rough day. Now, new research suggests that you're not imagining it — your faithful pup does actually recognize your emotions.

For the study, published online today in Biology Letters, researchers measured how long 17 adult family dogs spent looking at photos. The photos showed a human or dog with a happy/playful expression or an angry/aggressive one. While looking at the photos, the dogs also heard positive or negative vocal sounds, which were either barks or human speech in an unfamiliar language.

Results showed that dogs spent more time looking at photos when the facial expression (of the dog or person) matched the vocal emotion. So, for example, they would look at a photo of a happy face with a positive vocal sound for longer than a happy face with a negative vocal sound. But they didn't spend more time looking at happy or angry faces. This suggests that the dogs could tell when a facial expression didn't match up with the sounds and, therefore, could accurately distinguish between the emotions presented in the faces, whether they were looking at person or another pup.

Of course, it's impossible to know exactly what the dogs were thinking, because we can't just ask them. (And even humans aren't exactly reliable self-reporters.) So it's understandable that previous research, which has generally focused exclusively on facial expressions or vocal cues, has had a hard time showing conclusively that dogs actually have this ability. And this study certainly won't settle the debate once and for all.

But, as these researchers say, it wouldn't be that surprising to find out that our pups can pick up on our feelings. We're all mammals, after all, so we do have a few emotional cues — like facial expressions — in common. We knew it all along.
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