5 min read


Can Dogs Tell Emotions?



5 min read


Can Dogs Tell Emotions?


Emotional intelligence is an important quality. Some psychologists believe that emotional intelligence is more important than aptitude. It has three components: the ability to be aware of emotions, to harness your emotions to solve problems and to manage emotions, both your own and the emotional support you provide to others. 

Just as you have capabilities to recognize the feelings and reactions of others, so does your dog. The human-canine bond is such that we have the ability to have insights into one another's emotions and respond appropriately to those emotional signals. Just like humans, dogs can vary in their sensitivity to others. The emotional intelligence of the dog is one more dimension of our connection that makes the dog our best buds.


The Signs Your Dog Understands Emotions

They say that 90 percent of our communication is physical - through our body language. We communicate our emotions at many levels. Emotions are shared through body posture, energy level, our facial expressions, voices, and movements. 

The same is true for our dogs. They show us our feelings and what they are reacting to with their body signs. By paying attention to your dog and the situation at the moment, you can detect how your dog is feeling. Watch the eyes, ears, mouth, body, and tail. You can tell some feelings by the fur and posture. Just like us, your dog can vocalize. There is much to learn about our dogs so we can take care of them when we are leaders who are attuned to our own emotions as well as those of our pets.

Just as you show a range of emotions, your dog will show emotional reactions to you with body signs. For example, if you are dominating or frightening to the dog, your dog will act submissive. The submissive dog will blink and avoid eye contact with you. The dog will lower the body and tail. The ears will drop. 

Some dogs, if confused, will stare at you with wide eyes, called a whale eye, as they wait for you to give them signs that will resolve their confusion. If the dog is very frightened, the dog may cry or whimper.

Dogs are capable of comforting their family members. When they are providing comfort, the will go to the person or other animal who is in distress. They will comfort by leaning, nuzzling and rubbing up close to the person. They might lick the person. 

The dog may remain loyal, standing by the side of the person in distress, providing comfort by their presence. Some dogs will go find a favorite toy and bring it to the one in distress as if to share something that comforts them with you. Just as a dog may empathize with distress, they will also react to laughter and excitement. They may start running about, bark and even smile, joining in the fun.

Body Language

Signs that a dog understands emotion include:

  • Yawning
  • Low Tail Carriage
  • Whimpering
  • Blinking
  • Whale Eye

Other Signs

More clues that your dog can tell emotions are:

  • Providing Comfort To Others In Distress
  • Going To The Person Who Is Distressed
  • Leaning And Nuzzling
  • Offering A Favorite Toy To Provide Comfort
  • Reacting To Laughter With Excited Behavior

The History of Dogs Understanding Emotions


It is thought that the dog was domesticated by man due to cooperative behavior tendencies that resided in the wolf. As a pack animal, the wolf had capacities for social awareness and tolerance that made the animal capable of living with others. 

The early relationship was one in which dog and man cooperated with one another for survival and protection, hunting, sharing shelter, and guarding against danger. The dog has these abilities and over time, there has evolved an even closer connection between man and dog through breeding of the dog to meet man's purposes. Dogs have the intelligence and disposition to work with humans, hunt, as well as provide service, protection, and companionship.

The Science of Dogs Telling Emotion


Scientists have been interested in exploring the emotional detection abilities of the dog. In one study, by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, and the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, seventeen dogs were put to the test. The dogs were shown facial expressions of humans and animals. They were also shown vocalizations that did or did not match the facial expressions. They found the dogs spent more time looking at the faces that matched the vocalizations. The finding was interpreted as demonstrating that the dogs have internal categorizations of emotional states.

In another study, researchers went to the homes of dogs to study their capacity for empathy. The researcher and owner would take turns making crying noises and humming sounds. The dogs would go to the person who was crying. It did not matter if the person was the owner or a researcher. The response of the dogs was interpreted as showing that the dogs could sympathize with the sound of human crying. 

Scientists have identified other markers for the dog's capacity to tell emotions. The dog has an incredible sense of smell. They are able to smell hormonal changes in humans. When humans are upset, there are changes in hormones that the dog may detect. The dog also has a keen sense of hearing. They can detect changes in frequency in the human voice that are associated with emotional states. Studies have repeatedly shown that dogs will watch human facial cues.

Dogs are thought to have the intelligence of a two- to three-year-old child. Young children will respond to the emotions of others by what is called emotional contagion. In other words, if one child starts to cry, the others will cry as well. The findings of these studies are indicating that the reactions of dogs are more than emotional contagion but indicate a deeper capacity to empathize with others. 

Training a Dog to Understand Emotion


Humans derive tremendous benefits from being around dogs. Therapy dogs have been shown to lead to lower blood pressure and lessened anxiety. Unlike service dogs, therapy dogs visit institutions to provide comfort to others, such as elderly persons in nursing homes. 

If you want your dog to become a comfort dog, begin with excellent socialization of the pup. You will need to select a pup that has had proper whelping and weaning with the mother dog. The socialization with you will be in the optimal time frame of 7 weeks to 4 months. There are a number of characteristics of the pup that you will need to test:

  • Social attraction: the ability to connect to humans
  • Restraint or the ability to stay in control: the pup can be tested for temperament with the veterinarian
  • Retrieving: the pup's ability to fetch or follow a command to get an object
  • Touch sensitivity: the pup will need to be able to tolerate being touched and handled
  • Sound sensitivity: the pup will need to be able to tolerate sounds and not overreact. 
  • Sight sensitivity or the ability of the pup to engage in eye contact 
  • Structure or the general health of the pup 

Once it has been established that the pup has the prerequisite qualities to become a therapy dog, the next steps will involve lots of patience and training. The American Kennel Club has established standards for therapy dogs with levels of certification. The organization has recognized clubs that can help owners train their dogs to have the necessary skills to be safe when they make their therapy visits. 

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Safety Tips When Caring for a Therapy Dog:

  1. Give your pup vaccinations.
  2. Feed your dog food that is balanced for their needs.
  3. Keep your dog healthy with regular check-ups.
  4. Always be positive and patient with your dog.
  5. Make sure your dog has safe boundaries in the home.

By a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel lover Pat Drake

Published: 05/22/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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