Many dog owners believe their canine companions have an empathetic understanding of their feelings. Despite what they may think, this is not a product of their minds. Dogs may learn to recognize and distinguish between their owners’ fear, enthusiasm, and fury via exposure to behavioral and physiological signals from humans, as shown in recent research.
Dogs typically look to humans for indications about how to respond to other people and to the environment, much as human babies look to their parents for such indicators. Dogs have a greater sense of security when their owners exude serenity and self-assurance.
Professor of psychology and head of ASU’s Canine Science Collaboratory Clive Wynne said, “The emotional connection between people and dogs is the core of the partnership.” Dogs are very sociable, and as a result, they readily catch our positive emotions. Dogs may pick up on their owners’ emotional state of mind and become anxious too.
Psychologists have identified psychological, physiological, and behavioral bases for this interspecies emotional contagion. Numerous research in recent years has shown the physiological basis for the transmission of emotions, including the release of hormones (such as oxytocin), changes in human body odor, the activation of critical neurons in both dogs and their humans, and other aspects.
Also, new studies demonstrate that the length of time between human and canine interactions affects how well both parties pick up on one another’s feelings. This is a particularly interesting trend to observe at the moment, as individuals and their dogs continue to spend more time together in the face of the epidemic.
This is a very basic sort of sympathy
People and their dogs have varying degrees of emotional connection, from being able to read one other’s emotions to experiencing similar ones themselves.
Dogs, like humans, have been proven to pick up on our yawns, react emotionally to the tone of our voices, and even have a spike in cortisol when they hear a newborn screaming. The release of oxytocin, commonly known as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone,” has been observed in humans and their dogs during social interactions and even when simply looking into each other’s eyes. However, oxytocin’s effects are more nuanced than that, as the hormone can promote trust, generosity, and even envy, depending on the context.
Larry Young, professor of psychiatry and director of the Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition at Emory University, explains that “oxytocin release is stimulated by eye contact or social touch such as petting,” and that this “works both ways” (from dog to human and back again, like a feedback loop) when it comes to bonding. It is important for dogs to pay attention to their owners’ feelings if they are to catch their emotions and oxytocin makes this possible. As a result, social signals become a focal point in the brain.
Affective empathy, or the capacity to share the emotions of another, exists between dogs and the humans they care about. The capacity to catch someone else’s emotions is an early manifestation of affective empathy. Dogs’ reactions to their owner or a stranger acting out a humorous or sad situation were studied in a study set to be published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2020. When one person looked to be sobbing, the dog paid greater attention to that individual, either by staring at them or by touching them. Julia Meyers-Manor, an associate professor of psychology at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, and co-author of the research, explained that the dogs’ stress levels rose when the stranger sobbed.
“Everything about empathy includes some element of infectious emotions,” says Meyers-Manor. It takes more cognitive effort to understand another being’s emotions, but it’s easier for animals to experience those emotions via empathy.
Humans have an innate tendency to copy their conversational partner’s facial expressions, posture, and body language, whether or not they are consciously aware that they are doing so. Mirror neurons, which respond both when an action, like smiling, is done and when it is watched, are activated by the subtle muscular movements involved in this event, evoking the emotion as if it were being experienced spontaneously. It has been discovered that dogs engage in q`uick imitation while interacting and playing with one another and that this behavior may also be engaged when dogs interact with humans.
Because, as Meyers-Manor notes, both dogs and people exhibit rigid facial muscles, clenched teeth, and a tense physique when they are upset. This implies that you and the furious dog may subconsciously imitate each other’s facial expressions and body language and experience a mutual emotion of anger. Meyers-Manor explains that humans and dogs have co-evolved to recognize each other’s emotional cues in ways that are unique among animal species.
For a long time, scientists believed that the ability of domesticated dogs to sense and mimic their owners’ emotions acted as a protective mechanism, helping the dogs to thrive by increasing their chances of receiving positive human attention. These days, however, such a viewpoint is outdated. New research published in Scientific Reports investigated the role that dogs and their owners’ shared histories and bonds play in the production of oxytocin during encounters. More time spent in close proximity between humans and their canine friends has been associated with a greater likelihood of emotional contagion occurring between the two species (as reported in a 2019 issue of Frontiers in Psychology).
Emoticons and perspiration
The emotional contagions between humans and their dogs may also be affected by sensory elements. Dogs, according to experts, can read our emotions and understand our body language in astonishing ways. Although some studies have indicated that dogs pay more attention to the body language of their owners and other dogs than to facial signals from humans and other dogs, others have demonstrated that dogs perceive human facial emotions in a manner similar to that of humans. Dogs’ gaze and heart rates vary in response to human expressions expressing anger, fear, pleasure, sorrow, surprise, and disgust, according to research published in a 2018 edition of the journal Learning & Behavior.
According to Monique Udell, an associate professor of animal sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis and an animal behaviorist, “we know that dogs and humans synchronize their behavior—dogs often match the natural movements of their owners,” so it’s not surprising that they synchronize their emotions. Dogs pay great attention to our every move, not only because of our facial expressions and posture but also because of the noises we generate and the aromas we exude.
On the auditory front, studies have shown that dogs react uniquely to human vocalizations, such as cries of pain or laughter, compared to other vocalizations or non-human noises. Dogs are conditioned to respond to these human vocalizations by immediately looking at or approaching their owner or the source of the sound.
According to Wynne, “dogs are particularly sensitive to body odor,” which is how they may detect diabetes and perhaps epilepsy in humans. Researchers in an experiment published in the 2018 edition of Animal Cognition exposed Labrador and Golden Retriever dogs to samples of three human body scents signifying fear, pleasure, and a neutral emotion: The men were made to feel these feelings in order to collect armpit samples for analysis. Then, in a free-flowing area where dogs could be among their owners and new people, these scents were aerosolized using a specialized dispenser: Dogs’ heart rates and stress levels went up when they smelled fear, whereas they relaxed and showed increased interest in the strangers when they smelled pleasure.
Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans says that when dogs detect human emotions, “they often use composite signals, which includes information coming in from a cocktail of their senses, including sight, hearing, olfactory, and maybe through touch if someone is nervous.”
However, he stresses the fact that not all canines have the same mental, physical, or social characteristics. Bekoff argues that “dogs are individuals and you need to know who they are.” As I constantly tell my friends and family, “You have to be fluent in dog.” Bekoff suggests that pet owners pay attention to the cues provided by their dogs via barking, other vocalizations, and body language.
Something that works in both directions?
Dogs, like most people, likely have a narrower emotional repertoire than our own. Wynne argues that dogs do not have “extremely complicated emotions.” They feel the whole range of human emotions, from warmth (happiness and enthusiasm) to chill (fear and worry). Beyond that, there are numerous unknowns; one difficulty in doing such studies is that dogs cannot verbalize their precise emotions at any one time.
As of yet, no research has been conducted to definitively answer the issue of whether or not people can pick up on their dogs’ emotions, but some experts think it’s very likely. According to Wynne, author of Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You, “I absolutely believe that my dog’s delight may raise my attitude.” I believe we catch up on their emotions, too,” Bekoff adds. It’s not always hard to feel their anxiety and worry. However, you can tell a dog is delighted just by the way it approaches you: wagging tail and perked-up ears.
Study after study has shown that individuals, dog owners or not, are quite good at reading the subtle alterations in facial expressions that communicate positive and negative emotions in dogs.
Leash reactivity is one example that demonstrates how stress and tension may be transmitted in both ways. If you’re walking your dog on a leash and it starts barking, growling, or lunging at other dogs, people, or vehicles, it’s natural to feel embarrassed or freaked out. Udell warns that this “may be a trigger for the dog doing it again,” leading to a vicious cycle.
Nonetheless, it is generally useful to share one other’s emotional ups and downs since it deepens our connection and has survival value. Wynne explains that in the past, “if you look back to our forefathers, it was a life-or-death situation that your dog might warn you to anything so that you could move immediately.” Both species benefit from “the two-way roadway on the alarm side.”
The human-dog bond is strengthened when humans and dogs share not just their homes but also their lives, families, and interests. Bekoff argues that open communication improves understanding between people and fosters a lasting connection between them. It’s like social glue when dogs and people communicate their feelings. It’s like a superglue that holds us together, usually for the rest of our lives.