Those of us who are lucky enough to have a dog in our life, understand the unique bond that exists between us and them. Nobody knows our dogs quite like we do. Some dogs are halfway out of the back door, wagging their tails and barking excitedly if we so much as pick their lead up from the table. Others know exactly what time their dinner should be ready and sit patiently by their food bowl in the kitchen, sending mournful looks your way until you get around to filling it for them. Some dogs love the postman’s daily visit, greeting him with a wagging tail; others are suspicious of him and his intentions with that big van and satchel full of letters.
Yes, we know our dogs inside out – their funny little habits, what makes them squeal with excitement, what makes them fretful, anxious or on-edge. It’s a relationship built over a lifetime of familiarity and companionship and you probably feel that no-one can read your dog’s mind better than you can – and you are most likely right!
The shoe is on the other paw
So, should we really be surprised that it potentially works the other way around and that dogs recognise and respond to our own emotions too? Do we really believe that our dogs’ participation in our mutual relationship is just one-sided, based on their needs and wants and not ours? Just because our dogs ask us what the problem is; can’t understand the more complex language that we use to articulate ourselves and haven’t experience of the nature of our complaints and anxieties, does it mean that they can’t pick up on the other, subtler signs that give our emotions away?
It’s well known that humans communicate using verbally and non verbally – the way we adjust the tone, pitch and volume of our voice, use gestures and body language, change our facial expressions and much more.
It has long been suspected by dog lovers that their dogs can sense their owner’s moods and behave accordingly. And now, an increasing amount of evidence is showing that dogs can interpret our body language to gauge our mood. Even more amazingly, a recent study has found that dogs can actually understand more of what we say and the words that we use than was originally thought!
Let’s explore some of the latest research which aims to apply some scientific evidence to these long-held theories of dog lovers around the world.
Body language – “it’s not what you say…”
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting the fact that dogs can “read” our emotions through our body language. Have you ever been feeling low, upset or anxious and been surprised to notice that your dog sits closer to you or looks at you inquisitively? Perhaps he is quieter, more docile and less playful than usual when you are not yourself. This can be all the stranger if you feel that you are acting “normal” by masking your emotions and your friends and family haven’t noticed that anything is the matter!
Without knowing it, you are likely to be giving off some pretty powerful indicators of your mood through your body language, which our dogs are naturally hard-wired to pick up on. We humans often rely so much on the words that are said to size up what’s going on, that we sometimes neglect to use our instincts! But our dogs don’t have that problem – feeling their way by using their senses and instincts how they make sense of situation. Think back to when you were last in a park with your dog and think how he interacted with the other dogs there to give you a glimpse into the world of doggy instincts. Maybe he had his tail low and his ears sideways or back – this is likely to mean that he was anxious and did not feel comfortable in that particular situation. Alternatively, he might have been wagging his tail enthusiastically and panting – this probably means that he was thrilled to see Rover in the park and was ready for a game of Frisbee. Dogs can’t mask their true emotions with words or exaggerated politeness – and because their instincts are so finely honed to compensate for this, they can see right through it when we try to!
Guided by the senses
Dogs rely heavily on their senses to make sense of the world around them, as do we humans of course, but there are some marked differences in the power of the senses between us and we sometimes forget the subtler senses that dogs can pick up on so readily.
Take the sense of smell – a dog has a sense of smell at least one thousand times more powerful than that of a human (and some breeds have a much more powerful sense of smell than this!). It is therefore entirely possible that our dogs can pick up on the physical signs that give away our state of mind. An example of this is the fact that we often perspire more heavily if we are anxious or are fearful and your dog may be able to pick up on this through using his sense of smell alone – something that is beyond the capacity of most human beings.
And it’s not just their sense of smell that is superior to ours – it’s their sense of hearing as well! Dogs can hear a much broader range of frequencies than we can – up to 60,000 Hz compared to our relatively meagre 20,000 Hz. Perhaps this gives them a greater capacity to pick out those barely discernible changes in intonation or frequency in our voices which betray our true emotions, such as if we speak in a slightly higher pitch if we are feeling panicky or upset about something.
But surely my dog can’t actually understand the words that I say?
Well, the answer is – much more so than we previously thought! The traditional theory was that dogs only really understood the intonation of a word – so your dog’s enthusiastic flinging of himself against the back gate at the word “walkies” was much more about the way in which you said it and the other signs that went along with it, than the word itself. And there’s a lot of truth in this – as we know, our dog’s sense of hearing is incredibly sensitive and the intonation of our voice is absolutely critical for a dog as it gives him an insight into what’s going on in our minds.
But the words themselves DO matter too. A recent study in Hungary scanned the brains of thirteen dogs in an attempt to work out whether the words, the intonation, or both combined had an impact on their reactions – and the results were unmistakable. The researchers discovered that both the right side of the brain (known to process emotion) AND the left side (for processing meaning) were positively triggered when researchers spoke to the dogs using words that they recognised, spoken in an affectionate and happy intonation. If the tone was neutralised but the words were familiar, and vice versa, the dog’s reactions were less positive – proving that dogs respond positively to both tone and language combined, in much the same way as humans.
Another study, carried out for the Animal Cognition journal presented dogs with both a stranger and their owner as alternately humming or crying. They found that 15 out of the 18 dogs approached the person who was crying and 13 of these dogs demonstrated signs of submissive behaviours such as putting their head in the person’s lap, licking, nuzzling or whining. Of course, the findings should be treated with an element of caution as they are unable to definitively ascertain the dogs’ motivation in approaching the crying person in a submissive fashion. But the findings do go some way towards backing up the experiences of many dog owners who can recall times that their dog has been particularly attentive when they have been visibly upset.
So, there we have it – sometimes, a dog can be not just man’s best friend but man’s biggest comfort and confidante too. Many devoted dog owners need no convincing of this and these new findings simply back up their long-held belief that their dog really can intuitively sense and understand their emotions, often better than their fellow human beings can!
And perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in this tale for us humans too – taking a leaf out of our dog’s book and slowing down to read between the lines and using our instincts and senses to better interpret how somebody is feeling could maybe just give us more insight and compassion than judging the situation by the tangible signs alone. Maybe our beloved companions can teach us a thing or two about emotion after all!