Does my dog understand how I feel? The science of how our emotions influence our dogs’ behaviour.

brown puppy

“When I feel stressed, my dog starts to shiver and she does not know what to do. I try to comfort her but I have noticed that she only calms down when I feel calm again myself. Even when I try to hide my emotions, I can still see that my dog is affected.” – Marielle

 

My ex-boyfriend suffered from severe pain attacks. One day, he collapsed to the ground because of the pain. My dogs Gibbs came running and licked his face. Then Gibbs came to fetch me, jumped on top of him and licked his face again.” – Sharon

“I got food poisening when my Jack Rusell was only a little pup. He was whining and peering through the window. He really wanted to get close to me, and he truly seemed worried about me. Very special.” – Dominique.

 

Do you ever wonder if your dog understands you?

 

Dogs are pretty clever, and can find a treat or a toy when we point at it. Dogs can even follow our gaze to find a hidden treat. Many people truly believe that their dog actually ‘gets’ them. 

Image by Josephine Payson from Unsplash

In a totally unofficial and biased Facebook poll, I asked 225 dog owners if they believed that their dog knows how their owner is feeling. Sixty-three percent of dog owners believe that their dog always understands how they (the owner) feel (Figure 1).

About 18% of owners thought that their dog only understood them when they expressed strong emotions (excitement, very sad etc).

Only about 1% believed that their dog never understood them. There was also an option in the poll ‘No, dogs do not have emotions, therefore they cannot understand emotions in others’. Thankfully, no one chose that option!

Figure 1. Responses to the question “Does your dog know how you feel?” in a Facebook poll of dog owners.

 But do dogs truly understand our emotions? Or are we just projecting our own wishes and feelings onto our dogs?

Being able to express your own emotions and understand the emotions of others are the building blocks of social relationships. This is true for two humans, two dogs and also for the relationship between dogs and their owners.

 

Now I am going to say something that may offend you, but science has shown that, on average, we are quite bad at understanding the emotions in our dogs. We can usually ‘read’ big emotions, such as fear and excitement, from our dog’s body language. But we tend to miss the more subtle signs of stress and discomfort.

 

Misunderstanding your dog’s emotions and intentions can lead to problems with reactivity and aggression.

 

If you have a dog, then you know that you have developed a strong bond with your dog, so clearly something is working well. So this makes me wonder if it is actually our dog’s understanding of us that is at the foundation of this bond? Rather than us understanding them?

 

So what is the evidence that dog’s can understand our emotions? And how can you even assess this scientifically? Studies have show that dogs can tell the difference between a picture of happy person and a picture of an angry person. Probably not very surprising! Dogs have been living with us for thousands of years, and in this time they have learned to read us very well. They know that they should run from an angry face, because it means that a punishment may be coming. A happy face, on the other hand, tells the dog everything is safe and maybe a treat is coming soon!

 

What’s also exciting, is that the way dogs understand our emotions is regulated by the same neuro-endocrine processes that regulate emotion understanding in people. For example, the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin changes how dogs look at different emotional pictures. In one study, scientist showed dogs pictures of angry and happy faces and then measured exactly what the dogs looked at with a special camera that tracks eye movements.

 

Under normal conditions, dogs looked more often and for longer at the picture of the angry face, probably because it signals a potential threat and therefore attracted the dogs’ attention. But when dogs were given oxytocin, they looked more often at the happy face (Figure 2)! Their pupils also dilated more, suggesting that oxytocin increased the emotional arousal when looking at happy pictures. In other words, seeing happy people made dogs that were full of love hormones even more happy!

 

Figure 2. Circles represent the gaze fixations of one dog and the lines trace the path that the gaze traveled across the image. Circle size is proportional to the fixation time. The numbers in the circles represent the order of the fixations. Source

Dogs can also understand human emotions in more complex situations. Dogs look longer at a picture of a happy face when they hear a happy voice, compared to when they hear an angry voice. This means that they understand that a happy voice goes together with a happy face.


The tricky bit is that this research still does not show if dogs understand the feeling behind the expression. Dogs could simply have learned that a happy face and a happy voice always go together, which means that they haven’t truly understood that a happy face or voice also means a happy feeling.

But let’s take it a step further. Stronger evidence of emotional understanding would be if dogs can use the emotional state of their owner to make decisions. In sciency terms, this is called ‘social referencing’ and originates from methods developed to measure emotion understanding in human infants.

 

To test this, dogs were given something that is potentially scary, for example, a wind fan with noisy plastic bits attached to it. At the same time, the owner was asked to show either a happy facial expression or a scared expression and the experimenters measured if the dog approached the scary object or not.

 

It turned out that when the owner was happy, the dogs looked more often at the owner and then spent more time approaching the object. But when the owner looked fearful, the dogs were less likely to approach. So this experiment showed clearer that dogs understood that a happy face means safety, while a fearful face means danger. Pretty clever no? This same study also showed, though, that a stranger’s facial expressions did not change the dog’s behaviour as much as the owner’s. Perhaps because the dogs did not know if they could trust the stranger?

 

Does stress change how dogs see others?

We all know that understanding someone else is not always easy, and that it gets even harder when we are feeling stressed or worried. In people, there is plenty of evidence that stress makes it harder to understand others.

 

Stress or anxiety can make us believe that other people are threatening, even though this is not actually the case.

 

But we don’t know if stress also makes it harder for dogs to understand people, because this research has not been done yet! But there is a possibility that a stressed or scared dog mistakenly thinks that a stranger is angry or aggressive.

 

This false believe can then get them to react or behave more aggressively towards the stranger. Could this perhaps explain why some dogs react so strongly when they meet strange people or dogs when they are out on a walk?

 

Photo by Luke McKeown on Unsplash

How does our bad mood affect our dog?

We may unconsciously be stressing our dogs when we are feeling angry or frustrated ourselves. One study showed that when owners were were stressed, their dogs changed how well they remembered a task. Interestingly, dogs actually had better memory when their owners were stressed. This does not mean that you should stress your dog to help them remember things better!

 

So how is this possible? The stress hormone cortisol has well-known effects on learning and memory. People and animals alike remember things worse when they have either very low of very high levels of cortisol. But there seems to be a sweet spot were a little increase in cortisol can help to improve memory. Probably because

 

In a situation of high emotional arousal, cortisol tells the brain that ‘this is important, remember it’.

 

Now emotional arousal is not always bad. Excitement (a fun game or a very tasty treat) increase arousal and cortisol. Why do you think your dog remembers exactly where you keep his favourite treats?

 

The problem is that when we show our stress and frustrations, our dogs may pick up on this and also change their own behaviour. One study showed that dogs had higher cortisol levels when their owners were stressed, suggestion that dog’s stress levels mirror their owner’s. The authors of this study suggest that stress may be ’emotionally contagious’.

 

The question is what happens when dogs are affected by their owners’ stress levels? When they start to become stressed themselves, they may start seeking more attention, become restless or even aggressive, which are all behaviours we don’t want to see in our dogs. There is a risk that we may resort to punishing the dog or other inhumane training techniques because we want to stop those behaviours. Make sure you don’t fall into this trap!

 

Think about your own behaviour and what your body language is telling your dog, and how you are influencing your dog’s behaviour.

 

At least some of the unwanted behaviours could potentially be prevented if we were more aware of how our own emotional state affects our dog, and how stress could potentially make the dog more sensitive to potentially scary things (such as a stranger or the owner being angry).

 

It could even be the case that the ‘misunderstanding’ of each other’s emotions plays a role in behavioural problems such as aggression and nervousness towards people.

 

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References

Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces

Nasal Oxytocin Treatment Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response toward Positive Human Facial Expressions

Dogs recognize dog and human emotions

Dogs’ Social Referencing towards Owners and Strangers

Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance

Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners

The effects of acute stress and stress hormones on social cognition and behavior: Current state of research and future directions.