Can Dogs Understand Human Emotions?

ThinkStock / ThinkStock

Whenever I cry, my beagle, Sadie, jumps into my lap and nudges me with her nose. Is Sadie’s intuitiveness unique, or can dogs really understand human emotions?

According to a recent study, the answer is yes. Attila Andics, at the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Budapest, coaxed 11 canines into laying still in an MRI for 10 minutes at a time. While the pups listened to about 200 snippets of human voices, dogs' yips, yaps, grunts and barks, and environmental din, the researchers looked at their brain activity.

They found that when Fido heard his doggy brethren vocalizing, a particular region in his brain became very active. The area is comparable to one that humans have, which sparks when hearing the sound of one’s own species.

And when Fido heard human and doggy voices, neurons in a small area in the back of the brain, behind the ear, fired. This patch of neurons in the dogs’ brains is similar to one in humans known as the “voice area.” In humans, this region aids in understanding the emotional intent of the speaker, helping us differentiate between sarcasm and disgust, for example. In dogs, that area responds to the emotion in voices. It doesn’t help them understand the words, but rather allows them to decipher the emotions—so Fido understands happiness and sadness.

Dogs don’t simply have a region analogous to humans; they actually act like humans, too. “When you looked at how dogs respond to emotion cues in sounds, it’s very similar to how humans respond,” Andics told NPR.  

The dogs also pick up on context clues. "For instance, when you laugh, 'Ha ha ha,' it has short, quick pieces," Andics said. "But if you make the pieces longer, 'Haaaa, haaaa, haaaa,' it starts to sound like crying or whining. This is what people—and dogs—pay attention to."