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

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Amy Swales
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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.”

dog study research expressions emotion

Some of the expressions used by the researchers

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.

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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.

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