Can Dogs Tell How Their Owners Feel? A Look Into The Science Behind Their So-Called "Sixth Sense"

Can Dogs Tell How Their Owners Feel?

Does it ever seem like your dog knows how you're feeling? Do they come to comfort you when you're sad or run off when you're in a bad mood? You're actually not alone.

For decades, as dogs have become closer and closer companions in the modern household, pet parents around the globe have taken part in an interesting discussion: Can dogs read our moods? The answer is actually yes, but it's not because of some superpower or "sixth sense". Rather, science is now able to back it up with a greater understanding of how the human body, and our dogs' minds, work.

Essentially, dogs are able to read our moods by considering the subconscious cues that we often don't realize we're giving them, hence why they're subconscious cues. This behavior has actually been studied in both cats and dogs, with dogs definitely being the primary focus.

Dogs have evolved with us humans for literally thousands of years. Through this time, they have learned a lot about their human counterparts just as we have used them to learn a lot about their species, and related species. With their evolution alongside us, they are now able to recognize and respond to the way we feel.

One study even found that dogs will gaze at a happy human face for a substantially longer period of time than they will a sad human face, which indicated to scientists that dogs are likely sensitive to our emotions. But, how can they tell?

Dogs Read Our Eyes

Preferably, when a dog is trying to understand how their owner is feeling, they will look into their human’s eyes. The oxytocin hormone plays a huge role in them making the connection. Our brains secret this hormone, which is often called the “love hormone.” It impacts our cognition and social behaviors along with a laundry list of other things.

A recent study utilized eye-tracking technology in order to see where dogs look on a human’s face. The dogs were completely untrained and were shown human faces displaying both negative emotions and positive emotions. Every single dog looked at the eyes in order to process how the human felt.

Another study found that dogs also use the mouth and mid-face to understand how a human is feeling. This all links back to dogs being highly social animals, and that’s why we have used them for centuries to quickly detect social threats--whether that’s the impending attack of a wild animal or the modern-day threat of a human attacker.

Expect Avoidance If You’re Angry

A number of different studies have been conducted in order to better understand just how dogs process our emotions, and also how they respond to the emotions they recognize. One such study took things a step further, trying to understand not only how dogs react to angry humans, but also how that behavior may differ from their response to an angry animal.

This study showed dogs images of angry humans. They also showed the dogs images of other threatening dogs. Interesting, the dogs worked to avoid the angry human images. However, when showed the image of a threatening dog, the dog showed increased attention. That makes a lot of sense once you analyze it.

When you come home to a chewed up slipper, you’ll get angry and your dog will avoid you. You might think it’s because they know they did wrong, but more likely, they’re reading you and can tell you’re upset. They may or may not know why (and most likely do not). In fact, scientists back this up. The dog doesn’t slink away because of guilt but, rather, because they know you are angry. Their processing power doesn’t lead them to wondering why.

Using This Knowledge In Training

That last realization is an important one to make, and it is rooted in study that has long inspired the work of the world’s best dog trainers. Rather than coming home and finding a chewed up slipper, then proceeding to yell at your dog assuming they understand what has happened, dog trainers say you need to respond differently.

While being angry is the likely result, expressing that anger and directing it towards your dog is most likely going to result in conflict with your dog. It can end up severely damaging your bond with them. And, some dogs are much more sensitive than others. Especially with dogs who have seen human conflict before, the slightest sign of displeasure can result in your dog hiding.

Being around human conflict can also result in anxiety in your dog. They may begin to tremble, cry, or hide regularly when they sense someone’s mood is just a little bit less than happy, and that’s definitely something worth addressing.

However, above all, it’s important to realize how this all connects. When you get mad at your dog or just mad in general, your dog is going to be impacted by that and they will respond. It can eventually begin straining your relationship with your dog, and if it evokes fear or anxiety, your dog is more likely to have behavioural issues and even fear-based aggression, a shortened life span, or a decreased attention span.

In other words, next time you come home to find a chewed up slipper, don’t take it out on your pooch. Instead, consider looking into a behavioural training program that can teach them bad behaviors while strengthening your bond with them. Positive reinforcement is a likely recommendation that you’ll get from any knowledgeable trainer.

And, next time you come home, be sure to greet your furry friend with a smile. Good luck!

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