It probably shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that dogs are sublime at reading human feelings through action.
After all, how do you think humans have been able to domesticate them to the point at which their canine ancestors had offered up a life of perpetual hunting-to-survive in favor of a lap (pun anyone?) of luxury today, to the point, even, where obedience is given a prize in the form of showdogs? If you think about it that’s pretty absurd (sounds a bit like a Big Brother situation if you ask me- imagine humans living on that kind of merit-for-compliance lifestyle!) but that’s not our point here.
(Image: Pet Attack)
A fairly recent study published early this year linked dogs’ facial recognition patterns to a specific region in the temporal lobe, which saw a stark difference when a dog viewed human faces, compared to everyday inanimate objects. According to Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, Atlanta, this is their innate way of processing faces in their brains, a quality that had previously only been well-documented in humans and other primates.
That isn’t all, apparently.
Further studies showed that they are so evolved in their way that not only can they distinguish and recognize faces (of course scent has something to do with this as well), they are also able to discern emotions- angry and happy expressions. This is why they can recognize an agitated face as an aversion stimulus, and a warm one as, well, ‘YOU’RE A FRIEND’.
Not only are they able to learn to identify facial expressions, they are also able to take what they’d learned and apply it in similar situations. This quite plainly explains how they are so adept at taking social cues and, in turn, learning to ‘sit’ and ‘stay’.
Another area to explore, perhaps, is whether dogs can “feel” your emotions with you, more specifically, sadness. A piece of research published in Animal Cognition explained that dogs are able to feel a great deal of empathy for humans, even in a distressed stranger. One of their experiments sought to find out whether unusual human behavior could trigger ‘canine concern’. Surprise surprise, most of the dogs attempted to comfort their human counterparts who pretended to cry.
What does this all mean? We choose to go with yes, dogs understand humans.
Of course most of this is no-brainer, perhaps I just want to draw your attention to this study mainly because every so often, the ‘dumb dog’ stereotype leads one to dismiss canines as slobbering fools beside their feline equivalents, and justice has to be done sometime! We could really be underestimating them here, and perhaps you will be more inclined to believe it the next time your little brother or crazy aunt tells you the dog ‘talked’ to them.
Another fun experiment? Try yawning in the presence of your dog. According to Matthew Campbell, an assistant professor in Georgia State University’s Department of Psychology, it’s contagious even for them!