5 Studies that Prove Your Dog Understands You: Empathy in Dogs

ElleVet dalmatian dog

When you are upset and your dog approaches to comfort you, do you wonder if they understand how you feel? Many dog owners would “yes,” and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that dogs show physical signs of empathy, which is the ability to share and understand the feeling of another. 

Humans are hardwired to trigger an emotional response upon perceiving a similar emotional state in another individual. For example, when you hear an infant crying, we pay attention, and our body releases the stress hormone cortisol. 

Our response could be described as emotional contagion, a primitive form of empathy that does not need higher psychological functions. The unconscious state matching between individuals is evolutionarily advantageous for social species. 

Can dogs understand humans’ emotions, though? The expanding field of canine cognitive science says “yes!”  Here are five scientific studies to cite next time someone asks, “Do you think your dog understands your emotions?” 

  1. Dogs and Humans Show a Similar Physiological Response to Human Infant Crying 

When: 2014

Where: University of Otago, New Zealand 

Journal: Behavioral Processes 

What: Scientists recorded each of the 75 dogs’ and their owners’ cortisol levels in response to three auditory stimuli: a human infant crying, a human infant babbling, and computer-generated “white noise.” 

Result: Cortisol levels in both humans and dogs increased after listening to crying, and dogs showed a unique behavioral response to crying, tucking their tails – combining submissiveness with alertness. 

Conclusion: These results suggest that dogs experience emotional contagion in response to human infant crying and provide evidence of a primitive form of cross-species empathy. 

  1. Dogs Perform Better on Memory Tasks When Owner is Stressed

Note: With some initial stress, it is proven that humans perform better on memory tasks 

When: 2014 

Where: Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Journal: Applied Animal Behavioral Science 

What: Three experimental groups, stressed guardian, non-stressed guardian, and stressed dog, performed both baseline and experimental memory tasks. 

Result: Stressed guardians performed better in the memory task than non-stressed guardians, and dogs improved their performance on memory tasks after they were stressed and after their guardians were stressed. Dogs in the non-stressed guardian group showed no such improvement. 

Conclusion: This study shows that guardian anxiety positively affects the dogs’ ability to perform well on a memory-related task indicating emotional contagion. 

  1. Dogs Can Match Emotional Vocalizations with Facial Expressions 

When: 2016

Where: University of Lincoln, UK

Journal: Biological Letters

What: Scientists simultaneously showed 17 domestic dogs two distinct sources of sensory input: photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalizations from unfamiliar subjects. 

Result: Dogs spent significantly longer looking at the facial expressions, which matched the emotional state of the vocalization, for both human and canine subjects.

Conclusion: The integration of different types of sensory information indicates that dogs have mental representation of emotions and a system of internal categorization for emotional states, distinct from associative behaviors, which have to do with conditioning. 

  1. Dogs Respond to Emotional Sounds of Humans and Other Dogs 

When: 2017

Where: University of Vienna

Journal: Animal Cognition  

What: Scientists played sounds to measure the influence of emotionality and species on the dog’s behavioral response. 

Result: Dogs behaved differently after hearing non-emotional sounds of their environment compared to emotional sounds, but the subjects responded similarly to human sounds and the sounds of other dogs. 

Conclusion: This indicates emotional state-matching or emotional contagion in dogs for dogs and humans’ emotional sounds. 

  1. Dogs Respond to Emotional Cues Conveyed by Human Faces 

When: 2019

Where: University of Bari Aldo Moro, Italy

Journal: Learning & Behavior 

What: Scientists presented dogs’ stimuli expressing six basic emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, and neutral. These stimuli were presented simultaneously into the left and right visual hemifields. 

Result: A bias to turn the head towards the left was observed with human faces expressing anger, fear, and happiness, but an opposite bias was observed with human faces expressing surprise. Further, dogs displayed higher behavioral and cardiac activity to a picture of human faces expressing clear arousal emotional state.

Conclusion: This study indicates that dogs are sensitive to emotional cues conveyed by human faces. 

The mutually beneficial relationship between dogs and humans has been ongoing for thousands of years. It is no surprise that both species have evolved to be able to communicate. As the field of canine cognitive science develops further, it is certainly possible that we will understand more about how we communicate with our dogs. 

For now, this research should put to rest any doubts that dog owners are overestimating their dog’s emotional recognition ability – the proof is in the science! 


The ElleVet Team
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