New evidence confirms long-standing belief that dogs can interpret our emotions

Dogs are renowned for being known as being man’s best friend, partly due to their uncanny ability to pick up on their owner’s mood. Whatever the emotion; be it sad, angry or happy, most dog owners would agree that their dog somehow understands what they’re feeling.

Now, thanks to a research team from the Hungarian Academy of Science’s Eotovos Lorand University in Budapest, we’re starting to uncover the neuroscience behind their apparent understanding of changes in human emotion.

Researcher, Attila Andics and colleagues compared the brain activity of 11 dogs and 22 humans when exposed to 200 different sounds, ranging from environmental noises, such as the sound of a car to human sounds and dog vocalisations; although no actual words were played.

In order to test the differences in brain activity, the 11 dogs, all border collies and golden retrievers, had to be trained to lay still in an MRI machine for up to eight minutes. “We used positive reinforcement strategies – lots of praise” commented Dr Andics, “There were 12 sessions of preparatory training, then seven sessions in the scanner room. Once they were trained we were so happy, I wouldn’t have believed it if I didn’t see it”.

The study was the first to make a direct neurological comparison between humans and a non primate animal, the use of dogs chosen due to their easy trainability and, as lead author Dr Andics theorised, “We think humans and dogs have a very similar mechanism to process emotional information”.

The test proved this idea, with the canine brain reacting in the same way the human brains did. The researchers found that when the human noises were played, the temporal pole, the most anterior part of the temporal lobe, was activated in both sets of test subjects.

The location of the activity in the dog’s brain was very similar to its position in human brains; with this test being the first time this part of the brain was found in a non-primate species. “The fact that we found these areas exist at all in the dog brain is a surprise” ¬†explained Dr Andics.

Emotional sounds, such as crying or laughter had a similar pattern of activity in both subjects, as did emotionally charged dog vocalisations such as whimpering or aggressive barking.

However, the difference became apparent with environmental sounds, with dogs less able to distinguish them from vocal sounds. Although they responded to the human sounds, dogs had a stronger reaction when it came to hearing other canine sounds.

Professor Sophie Scott, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London commented on the results “When we cry and laugh, they are much more like animal calls and this might be causing this response. It would be interesting to see the animals’ response to words rather than just sounds”. Dr Andics agrees with this next step, saying that it would be the focus of his next set of experiments.

Daniel Di Francesco

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