A new study may explain why;dogs recognize human emotions by drawing on different sensory information – an ability that, until now, has only been identified
in primates and humans.

Previous research showed that dogs’ ability to differentiate between human emotions is related to “associate behavior.” In other words, they link certain
emotional states to facial expressions or other cues that they have learned.

Prof. Daniel Mills – of the School of Life Sciences at the UK’s University of Lincoln – and colleagues, their research challenges this theory.

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

Dogs combine sensory info to form mental image of emotional states

For their study, published in the journal Biology Letters, the team showed 17 domestic dogs pictures of both humans and other dogs displaying positive
(happy or playful) or negative (angry or aggressive) emotional expressions.

Alongside the picture presentation, the researchers also played positive or negative audio clips (voices or barks) from unfamiliar human and canine subjects.

The team found that when the dogs were shown a picture that matched the emotional state of an audio clip – for example, if an angry voice matched an angry facial expression – they spent much longer looking at it. This was the case for both human and canine pictures and audio clips.

The team says their findings indicate that dogs combine different sensory information to form a mental portrayal of the positive and negative emotional
states of humans and canines.

Study coauthor Dr. Kun Guo, from the School of Psychology at Lincoln, explains:

“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 categorization 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.”

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