Can Dogs Tell Your Emotions?

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Introduction

What are the qualities that you look for in your best friend or constant companion? Let's make a list. Friendly - check, your dog can do that. Happy to see you - check, your dog can do that. Available for walks and outings - check, your dog is always ready to do that. Empathetic - let's check that too. 

Have you ever been sad or ill and had your dog come to you to give you comfort? Your dog can read your moods and feelings. Like a true best friend, your dog can be responsive to you and your emotional needs. We think they have a special sense, but, really, how do they do that? How can they tell our human emotions?

Signs Your Dog Knows How You are Feeling

People and their pets find special ways to communicate with one another. Some of the communications are trained and practiced. For example, we train our pets to come when called and to respond to our commands. 

There are other forms of communications in our home. We learn to sense how one another is feeling. The dog is an observer of you to learn your signs. In turn, when you consider your dog's disposition, the situation at hand and your dog's body signals, you can tune into your dog's feelings and needs. You can also anticipate things that you can do make your dog feel safe and comfortable.

Your dog shows you playfulness by the play bow, in which the front legs are extended and the rear is up. This is your dog's invitation to come play. As your companion and protector, your dog can also engage in behaviors to protect you. Your dog may go to the window or door and bark at others. Your dog may pace back and forth if concerned there is a threat in the area. 

If your dog senses that someone is going to harm you, even if in a playful way, the animal may run between you and the threat, bark and, if provoked enough, even growl to warn the threat to back off. Many dogs will show you love by coming to you, licking you and snuggling to objects in your house that smell like you, like your socks.

Dogs can tell your intentions. They look at your eyes and know the cues that are associated with events. For example, they can tell if you are getting ready to give them a bath. You can tell they do not want that bath when they go hide then whimper and shake while you wash them. 

Dogs know your routines. If you do not follow a routine, like when you give them a treat, they can feel frustration. They will show you frustration by begging, standing, barking, and staring at you. Did you ever have your dog steal your hot dog when your back is turned? Yes, dogs can tell when your back is turned and they will go ahead and take what they want when you are not looking.

Body Language

Signs that your dog is feeding off of your emotions include:
  • Growling
  • Barking
  • Pacing
  • Running
  • Licking
  • Play bowing

Other Signs

More cues your dog will give when they know your emotions are:
  • Smelling the hormones you are giving off
  • Mimicking your mood
  • Comforting you if you are crying

The History of Dogs Understanding Human Emotion

Humans and dogs have been living together for about 15,000 years. From the beginning, there were signals of communication exchanged through actions, gestures, and vocalizations. Dogs have a long and complicated domestication with humans. 

As dogs became domesticated, they became more tolerant toward others of their own species, making them more socialized. They also developed more sensitivity towards human body language, gaze, and gesture, enabling them to be trained to carry out a multitude of tasks, from herding to guarding to guiding. 

For dogs, attachment to the owner is fundamental to their well-being. Dogs have been through thousands of years of breeding and selection to shape them to be companion animals to the human. They are creatures specialized to be our best friend and responsive to our needs.

The Science of Dogs Understanding Human Emotion

If you have ever felt bad and had your dog comfort you, it was because your dog really can tell your emotions. Many believe that dogs have special intuition or instincts to detect how humans are feeling. Research is demonstrating that dogs use a combination of signals to read our feelings and predict our behaviors. 

Dogs have an amazing sense of smell. Their sense of smell is so powerful that they can smell changes in your hormones when you are distressed and they can smell changes in your body chemistry when you are ill. If you are getting snuffled by your dog, it is one way your dog is saying hello and sensing your body cycles. 

When it comes to your emotions, scientists are finding that dogs are responding to more than scent or sound when they read our emotions. Experiments were carried out by a team of animal behavior experts and psychologists at the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. 

They presented 17 dogs with the faces and vocalizations of dogs and humans expressing different emotions. The conditions included faces and sounds that matched and faces and sounds that did not match. The dogs would spend more time staring at the faces when the emotion in the sound did not match the emotion in the face. 

The researchers interpreted these findings to mean that dogs have cognitive powers to interpret emotions in humans and other dogs. It's true that your beloved best friend can tell your emotions.

Training Your Dog to Respond to Emotions

Research has shown that when humans interact with dogs, they experience lower blood pressure, slower heart rate, reduced anxiety, and increased levels of endorphins and oxytocin. Therapy dogs are trained to provide comfort to others. 

A therapy dog is not the same as a service dog that is trained to do specific behaviors. A therapy dog makes visits to institutions, such as nursing homes, to provide comfort. The American Kennel Club has provided recommendations for how to train your dog to be a therapy dog. They offer the Canine Good Citizen Program that is the gold standard for training.

Begin by providing your pup proper socialization. Proper socialization begins at the age of 7 weeks to 4 months. This is a critical interval for social development. 

The training that occurs at this time will determine your dog's later social adjustment. Begin by exposing your pup to lots of stimuli, sounds, and others. Do not overwhelm your dog, build on experiences from your interactions, and hone to others and other situations. Teach your dog good obedience. Take puppy classes so you will learn to be a good owner. Always use positive reinforcement and praise with your dog - and be patient! 

To demonstrate that your dog has met the Good Citizen Program behavior standards, there is a test that you and your dog must pass that assess these skills:

1. Accepting a friendly stranger

2. Sitting politely for petting

3. Appearance and grooming

4. Walk on a loose lead

5. Walk through a crowd

6. Sit down on command and stay on the leash

7. Come when called

8. Reaction to a dog - stay confident and in control

9. Reaction to distraction - stay calm when there are distractions

10. Supervised separation  - the dog will stay in control when the owner is separated

How to React to Your Dog Knowing How You Feel:

  • Realize your dog is sensitive to your anxiety.
  • Control your anxiety to keep your dog in control in new situations.
  • Anticipate how your changes in routine may impact your dog.
  • Accept comfort from your dog - go ahead and snuggle!