Can your dog really tell how you’re feeling?
Does he know if you’re happy, sad, excited or frustrated? A dog owner will answer with a resounding, “Of course he does!”
What’s more, dogs mirror their owners’ emotions. If you’re happy, not only does his tail wag, but his whole body seems to wag as he does a happy dance with you. If you’re sad, he rests his head on your lap or knee, or nudges you gently, as if to say, “I’m sorry you’re sad. I’m here for you.”
What Research Tells Us
People who love dogs will tell you this is true. Critics will tell you it’s anthropomorphism (giving human characteristics to animals) at its best. But has any research been done to test this either way?
Turns out, there has been. The research shows that dogs have a part of their brain that analyses sound. Dog sounds (barks, whines, etc.) stimulate one part of the audio center of their brain. Other noises activate a separate part of the audio center. But there’s a third part of the audio portion of their brain that reacts to the human voice. And within that part, the brain reacts different to happy human sounds than it does to sad ones.
A similar study was done on humans, with strikingly similar results. A much higher portion of the audio center of the human brain reacted to the human voice, but a larger portion was stimulated by dog “voices” (barks, whines, cries, etc.) than to other sounds, such as glass breaking.
Humans and Canines Respond Similarly to Each Other
The ability humans and dogs have to recognize the other species’ voices separately from other sounds could explain part of the affinity the two species have for each other. The ancestors of man who befriended the ancestors of the contemporary dog chose the animals that responded in the friendliest manner to them for breeding.
If those animals had brains that were more receptive to the human voice, that trait would have been reinforced through centuries of breeding. Over the eons, this could have resulted in animals that were more attuned to humans.
It’s hard to tell if dogs react to human voices because of the way their brains are wired, or because of the fact they spend so much time with humans. There does seem to be some evidence, though, that regardless of the reasons, dogs do recognize whether you’re happy or sad.
This could also explain why dogs seem to like to hear people laugh. If a dog does something that makes you laugh, he will often do it again. It works like positive reinforcement to get him to repeat the action.
The Reasons Are Blurry, But We Know the Facts
Even if you’re face down, your dog comes over and nuzzles you, and you laugh or giggle, he’ll keep nuzzling as long as you keep giggling. He can’t see your face, so he can’t read your expression, but he seems to recognize the giggle as a good sound.
Until our dogs are able to tell us what they think, people will speculate on how much human emotion a dog can pick up on.