Inside The Dog’s Mind: How Do They Know What We’re Feeling?

Working with dogs every day has led me to become increasingly curious about them. They seem to always know when we’re about to leave, when someone will be arriving, or even when we’re fearful of something. Have you ever been in an uneasy situation where your pup has protected you? Perhaps whatever was threatening to you was not threatening to him, but he sensed your fear nonetheless and acted on it. For example, one day I was hiking a big ridgeback named Oberon, when we came across the edge of a hill. I cautiously stepped to the edge, telling Oberon to walk slowly in front of me. However, he did much more than that and actually pushed his body against me so I could use him as support. We walked all the way down the hill like this—both my hands leaning on his back, as he made sure I wouldn’t slip or fall. Absolutely amazed and in awe of how he knew he should help me, I realized that my apprehensive body language might have given myself away.

A term called social referencing may help to explain this, and in fact, each one of us has already experienced what it means. Think of a time when you were younger and some tasty cookies were tempting you. You go to reach for them but first look at your parents to see their reaction. If you sense they won’t get mad, the cookie is yours for the taking. If you sense a stern look, you best take your hand away.

Dogs, just like children, can learn what to do next based on their owner’s reactions. But what about our reactions tell our dogs how we’re feeling? For starters, all animals have in innate ability to communicate with others through body language. Dogs communicate with other mammals by changing the way their eyes, mouth, ears, tail, and even hair look, depending on how they feel in the situation. Our dogs look at our body language to determine how we’re feeling, what we think, and if there is a threat in the way. In a recent study conducted at the University of Milan, researchers aimed to find out if dogs can understand their owners’ emotions and even attach these emotions to what their owner’s are looking at. The study contained two boxes that had toys in them. The owner was told to verbally say “Oh! How Ugly!” and physically jump back from the first box. For the second box, the owner was told to verbally say “Oh nice, really nice” and physically crouch down in front for a more positive emotional expression. The results showed that 81% of the dogs went to the box that posed no threat, based on their owners’ verbal cues (such as tone of voice) and physical body language. This study not only shows that dogs can understand how we’re feeling, but also shows how they can attribute what were feeling to what we’re looking at.

This is why Oberon sensed I needed help. He noticed my apprehensive body language as I was inching my way to the edge. He heard the cautious and insecure tone of my voice that told him to “take it slow” and was able to determine that the edge of the hill was what was making me feel so uneasy.

But is there another sense involved? Can dogs perhaps smell ouremotions too? In fact, they can and it’s all thanks to how our bodies secrete certain body odors when we feel certain emotions. In an article published by Psychology Today, a study found that dogs cannot only smell stress, but it also affects them. To break this research down, human participants were asked to watch videos that elicited either a happy response or a fearful one.  Their body secretions (sweat) were then taken for both emotional reactions. The dogs were then brought in and had mobile heart rate monitors on, to detect how they were feeling in response to smelling the human odor. The results showed that the dogs that smelled the fearful body odor had a drastic increase in their heart rate, suggesting that they too were feeling fearful after smelling human fear. The same result showed for the happiness odor.

What these studies show is that dogs are one of the most incredibly intelligent creatures and are closer to us than we even give them credit for. They’re not only companions; they’re healers, protectors, and best friends. They aren’t just slobber monsters, they’re creatures who deeply understand what we’re feeling – perhaps even better than we understand ourselves.

Have you and your pup experienced a situation where he’s protected you? What about yourself might have influenced your pup to think you needed protecting? Do you know any other ways dogs can sense how we feel? Comment below, we’d love to hear from you!

Other Interesting Sources:

Psychology Today: Dogs Read Emotions

How Dogs Interpret Body Language

Canine Body Language

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