Does My Dog Understand How I Feel?

July 10, 2014

dog understand TonyBy Linda Cole

We already know that dogs are experts at reading our body language and have the ability to read our emotions by looking at our face. We also know that dogs respond to our tone of voice in much the same way we understand another person’s tone. A new study was recently released that gives us a deeper understanding into how the canine brain processes the emotional tones of our voice to understand how we feel.

Scientists have been trying for years to get into the head of canines to unlock what goes on in their mind. Several years ago Dr. Gregory Berns, a Neuroeconomics professor at Emory University, and his colleagues trained dogs to remain calm and lie quietly in an MRI scanner so they could scan the canine brain with the dog fully awake and unrestrained.

In a nutshell, Neuroeconomics is the study of how we make choices by evaluating risks and rewards, and when interacting with other people. When other researchers learned it was possible to train dogs to lie still inside an MRI scanner, it opened up more studies into how the canine brain works. The surprising finding is that dogs, like us, have a dedicated voice area in their brain that receives and interprets emotions in the voices of humans and dogs.

Dogs are perhaps more observant of our feelings than some people realize. Research suggests they do understand when someone they are close to needs a doggy hug or a tender paw placed on a knee. Dogs can tell when we’re upset or sad, and they do it without understanding the meaning of words. Canines are able to figure out how we feel because they have a portion of their brain devoted to understanding human and dog emotions. When they hear us laugh or listen to happy barks, neurons in the region of the brain light up with positive activity, and the activity in the doggy brain is more pronounced when dogs listen to other dogs.

This portion of the brain in humans reacts the same way as it does in dogs when we listen to voices of our own species. Humans and dogs both have a stronger reaction when listening to sounds from their own kind, and react in similar ways when the sound conveys a positive emotion like happiness. Happy sounds garner a greater activation in the primary auditory cortex in both the human and dog brain.

dog understand ChrisIf a sadder sound like a bark, growl or whining is detected, there’s less response. It turns out the region in the human and canine brain is located in a similar area and is used in the same manner. Another region in the brain sensitive to emotional tones is also found in both the human and canine brain, located in the back near the ears. This area processes emotional tones rather than deciphering words, and recognizes the human and dog voice.

The human and dog brain are programmed to process social information in much the same way. Dogs have a sensitivity to at least some our emotions and can even show empathy for us and other animals. According to researchers, the area of the brain that recognizes voice and sounds in both humans and dogs may have evolved at the same time, which could explain why our brains are similar in how they respond to emotion.

To get inside the mind of dogs, scientists trained 11 canines – mainly Border Collies, Golden Retrievers and a Labrador – to sit inside the MRI scanner to get them used to the noise and confined space. When the dogs were comfortable in the scanner, researchers analyzed the brain of the dogs as they listened to 200 different sounds from laughing to crying, and happy barking to growls and whining. They also listened to environmental sounds like a ringing phone and car sounds. I’m sure it took a lot of CANIDAE treats to train the dogs to accept lying motionless inside the noisy scanner with headphones on for up to 10 minutes at a time.

The bond we share with our dogs is an emotional connection. They may not be able to understand all of our emotions, but dogs can understand when we’re feeling happy or sad, and they respond best to positive interactions.

Top photo by Tony Alter
Bottom photo by Chris Vaughan

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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