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Your Dog Gets You

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A new study shows how canines read human emotions
Last year, a study published in the journal Current Biology proved that dogs can understand human facial expressions. The study, conducted on a number of different dog breeds, noted that the pets were able to distinguish between happy and angry human faces—of their owners as well as strangers.

But a new study has now found that canine understanding of human emotions is way more significant and evolved. Your dog doesn’t just appear unusually cheerful when you are happy or come to comfort you when you are depressed; your dog knows exactly how you are feeling.

According to the new research, dogs recognise human emotions by combining information from different senses. Published by a team of researchers from Brazil and the UK in the journal Biology Letters, the study shows that dogs form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states; they are not simply displaying learned behaviours while responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.

For the study, a total of 17 pet dogs were shown images of a happy and an angry face at the same time, while a single voice recording was played.

The recordings were either dog barks or a human voice speaking an unfamiliar language, and had either a positive or negative tone. The researchers found that the dogs looked ‘significantly longer’ at the image with the corresponding emotional tone, and showed a ‘clear preference’ for the matching face in 67 per cent of the trials.

According to the most widely believed theory, the modern mutt’s ancestors, the wolves, started living around ancient human settlements to eat leftover food. Over time, the wolves developed a close relationship with humans and evolved into modern dogs. Could it be that in this process of evolution from wild beasts into man’s best friends, dogs have also evolved the ability—the first to be recorded in non-humans— to understand our emotions?

‘The ability to recognise emotions through visual and auditory cues... might have been developed for the establishment and maintenance of long-term relationships with humans,’ the researchers write in the journal. ‘It is possible that during domestication, such features could have been retained and potentially selected for, albeit unconsciously.’