Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

Take that, cats: new study shows dogs understand human emotions


In news to shock no dog owners, a new study says our canine friends are capable of recognising different emotions in humans.

While some dog behaviour is learnt (for instance, we think they look guilty when in reality they've just learnt to be fearful of the consequences when they've done something wrong) the researchers say the dogs assessed showed the ability to combine different emotional cues to form abstract mental ideas of emotion.

And what's more, they can do it across species – something no other species, bar us, has been observed doing.

pug dogs understand emotions study

“Hi. Are you OK? Can I help? Let me help.”

Researchers from the UK's University of Lincoln and Brazil's University of São Paulo showed dogs pictures of positive and negative facial expressions (both human and canine) while playing either positive or negative vocalisations.

The team reported dogs spent significantly longer looking at the pictures that matched the sounds – so when hearing an angry sound, they looked at the angry face and vice versa. The tests used voices talking in an unfamiliar language to rule out any recognition from the dogs' previous experience of human language.

The study, published in Biology Letters, stated: “These results demonstrate that dogs can extract and integrate bimodal sensory emotional information, and discriminate between positive and negative emotions from both humans and dogs.”

dog happy understand emotions study

Use this feature as an excuse to browse dog pictures? Never.

Researcher Dr Kun Guo, from the University of Lincoln, said: “Previous studies have indicated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions from cues such as facial expressions, but this is not the same as emotional recognition.

“Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”

Co-author Professor Daniel Mills added: “It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognise human emotions […] However, there is an important difference between associative behaviour, such as learning to respond appropriately to an angry voice, and recognising a range of very different cues that go together to indicate emotional arousal in another.

"Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs.”

Our unique relationship with dogs has developed over thousands of years, and some behaviour is thought to have come about solely because they live with us – barking being one, because humans communicate vocally – so it could be that learning to distinguish different emotions in us was advantageous.

Previous research has also shown that dogs display understanding of human gestures, such as pointing, that even chimps, our closest species relatives, can’t.

So, in the eternal cat or dog debate, cats may well just be misunderstood (bless their cold little hearts) and better at living in the wild (of course they are better at hunting – they're EVIL) but I personally believe it's round two to our canine friends.



Why is dog ownership so life enhancing?


Nestlé offers private catering service for you and your feline

homeward bound film-stylist.co.uk.jpg

Cats vs dogs? Scientists have declared a winner


Man brilliantly recreates his sister's baby posts - with a cat

101 dalmatians engagement shoot.jpg

Couple celebrates engagement with 101 Dalmatians photoshoot

cat pub pic.JPG

A cat pub exists and it's right here in the UK


Meet the latest (inseparable) stars of Instagram

abby and matt humphrey newborn dog shoot-elisha minnette photography-stylist.co.uk.jpg

Couple tired of being asked the big baby question respond brilliantly


The colour of a cat's coat indicates how mean it is



“How beauty rituals help me manage my depression”

One writer found comfort in an unexpected place

21 Oct 2016

Stress is genuinely good for you, experts reveal

Forget everything you thought you knew about stress…

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

Must-watch Christmas TV: tune in for Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes

Just in time for Christmas

by Sarah Biddlecombe
21 Oct 2016

Bake Off fans, the BBC has already found a replacement show for GBBO

And it's set to hit our televisions very soon...

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

Costa’s fancy new menu includes avocado toast and Prosecco

You may want to dress up for the world’s poshest Costa…

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

Real-life victims of revenge porn share their stories

“Within a week, everyone had seen them… I tried to kill myself shortly after”

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

People diagnosed with a terminal illness share powerful life lessons

“You only get one life – and we need to live it”

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

This gin is officially the best in Europe – and it's from the UK

Gin drinkers, take note…

by Kayleigh Dray
21 Oct 2016

Amazing tasting menus from top UK restaurants for under £50

Total steals from Michelin-starred spots

by Amy Swales
20 Oct 2016

9 hilarious tips for making it in a male-dominated workplace

"Never say anything that sounds like a question, even questions."

by Harriet Hall
20 Oct 2016