2018-08-02 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“A dog can listen and he can even read. Not the books, those are capable everyone except him...The dog can read the heart...” Fabrizio Caramagna, writer and aphorist.

And now for the scientific evidence:

Study #1: A dog can read the expression on your face is the finding of a June 2018 research paper from the University of Bari Aldo Mori in Italy.

A team of behaviorists say dogs are capable of understanding the emotions behind an expression on a human face. For example, if a dog turns its head to the left, it could be picking up that someone is angry, fearful or happy. If there is a look of surprise on a person’s face, dogs tend to turn their head to the right. They found heart rates of dogs also increase when they see someone who is having a bad day. The research also suggests dogs use different parts of their brains to process human emotions.


Gazing into your dog’s eyes releases love hormone (oxytocin). Gazing into your dog’s eyes releases love hormone (oxytocin). By living in close contact with humans for thousands of years, dogs have developed specific skills that enable them to interact and communicate efficiently with people. Recent studies have shown the canine brain can pick up on emotional cues contained in a person’s voice, body odor and posture, and read our faces. (I’d like to add the reverse is true too. Because of our long-time association with canines, people have become adept at reading dogs’ body language, facial expressions and vocalizations.)

In this study, the authors watched what happened when they presented photographs of the same two adults’ faces (a man and a woman) to 26 feeding dogs. The images were placed to the sides of the dogs’ line of sight. The photos showed a human face expressing one of the six basic human emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust or just neutral.

The dogs showed greater response and cardiac activity when shown photographs which expressed arousing emotional states such as anger, fear and happiness. They also took longer to resume feeding after seeing these pictures. The dogs’ increased heart rate indicated that in these cases they experienced higher levels of stress.

In addition, dogs tended to turn their heads to the left when they saw human faces expressing anger, fear or happiness. The opposite happened when the human faces looked surprised, possibly because dogs view it as a nonthreatening, relaxed expression.

The authors concluded these findings support the idea that dogs’ brains can process basic human emotions. Negative emotions seem to be processed by the right hemisphere of a dog’s brain, and more positive emotions by the left side.

Study #2: Dogs lick their mouths as a response to angry human faces, according to a Nov. 2017 study by researchers from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the University of Lincoln, UK.

Scientists examined the behavior of dogs in response to emotionally strong images and sounds, and found that mouth licking in domestic dogs is not simply a response to food or uncertainty, but appears to be used as a signal to try to communicate with humans in response to visual cues of anger. It suggests dogs may have a fundamental understanding of emotional information. Audio cues of angry human voices did not elicit the same response.

In this experiment, dogs were exposed to two facial expressions (one positive and one negative from the same individual), either human or canine of either sex, along with a sound, which could be positive or negative from the same species and gender.

Lead author Natalia Albuquerque from the University of Sao Paulo, said, “Mouth licking was triggered by visual cues only (facial expressions). There was also a species effect, with dogs mouth-licking more often when looking at humans than at other dogs. Most importantly, the findings indicate that this behavior is linked to the animals’ perception of negative emotions.”

The researchers believe that this trait may have been selected during domestication. In other words, this was a trait humans preferred in their canine companions. The mouth licking reaction reminds me of one way submissive wolves defer to the alpha wolf.

Co-author Professor Daniel Mills at the University of Lincoln, said, “Humans are known to be very visual in their interactions, and because the vision of dogs is much poorer than humans, we tend to think of them using their other senses to understand the world. But these results indicate that dogs may be using the visual display of the mouth-licking to facilitate dog-human communication in particular.”

Study #3: Dogs and people bond through eye contact. Dog owners often consider the family pooch as another one of the kids. This study found the connections between humans and their dogs have the same biochemical basis as the mother-child bond. It’s strengthened by the same thing: a loving gaze.

A 2015 study led by a behaviorist at Azabu University in Japan, carried out experiments that examined the impact of the gaze in the dogs and their owners. Puppy dog eyes are quite meaningful.

Owner-dog bonding is comparable to human parent-infant bonding, and oxytocin plays a role.

Oxytocin is a hormone associated with trust, maternal bonding and love. It increases when you’re close to someone you love and gives you that warm fuzzy feeling. The researchers found that when owners and their canines gazed into one another’s eyes during a 30-minute period, levels of oxytocin (measured in their urine) increased in both the humans and the dogs.

Again domestication may have played a role. This soft gaze was acquired by dogs as part of their efforts to form social bonds with humans. Eye gaze between humans and dogs is usually threatening. Over time a small population of ancestor dogs showed a softer eye gaze toward humans. As a caveman Bogart said to the gentler canine gathering bones at the campfire, “Here’s looking at you, Kid.”

For Adoption: Visit Last Hope, 3300 Beltagh Ave, Wantagh to gaze into the eyes of both dogs. “Bobbie” is a four-month-old Beagle mix puppy who is extremely sweet. “Rory” is a petite Cattle Dog mix who had a rough start in life. She loves belly rubs.

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