We’ve all had times when we’re feeling a bit down, and within moments our favorite canine friend is there for us – wagging their tail and looking at us with loving eyes that brighten the day again.
Your dog really does understand what you are feeling, and dogs do seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to picking up on human emotions. No, dogs can’t read our minds, but sometimes is sure seems like they do!
The reason is a special connection between our two species. It’s been noticed by dog owners for millennia but is only now being well understood by science too. Dogs don’t just seem attuned to our emotions – they actually are. Eye tracking studies of dogs have shown that they are constantly reading human faces for emotional cues the same way humans do. In fact, besides human, our faithful companions are the only other species that does this – not even chimps have the emotional intelligence of our canine compadres. Scientists speculate that this skill evolved in dogs to enable them to communicate with us on an emotional level. This makes sense because humans and dogs have coexisted in mutually beneficial relationships for thousands of years, and when you rely on humans for your survival there’s an obvious advantage in being able to accurately interpret the moods of your human benefactors. Our emotional states show dogs signs of our intentions, impending danger, and give other clues which are immensely helpful.
But reading emotional cues isn’t a one-way street; we learn a lot from dogs too – take barking for example. Wolves rarely bark, and when they do, it’s to warn other pack members about something. Dogs, on the other hand, possess an impressive vocal repertoire that spans from yowls, yelps, grumbles, whines, acoustic sighs, and many types of barks. This suggests another trait dogs may have developed to strengthen their teamwork with humans, And this goes far beyond utilitarian purposes (like herding and protecting our livestock). Arguably, dogs have learned to speak a second language to support their bond with us specifically.
The connection goes both ways – while our dogs pay close attention to us, we pay close attention to them too, and have become skilled interpreters of the myriad of barks and other sounds which make our friends such a joy. In experiments, researchers played recordings of dog barks to dog guardians who were capable of distinguishing between request barking, anxious barking, territorial barking, and others without actually seeing the dog’s body language or the situation their dog was a part of. We use the tonality, frequency and interval of barks to decode each message.
We do indeed have a special bond with dogs, and them with us. It’s such a strong mutual connection that it’s often taken for granted. It’s no wonder then, that your dog is considered a part of the family. They are remarkable, adaptive creatures that have evolved in partnership with us in a way no other species has – and that is pretty special.