How Dogs Recognize Human Emotions

Co-evolution of Dog & Human Companionship

IMG_6684Humans have associated with wild canids for at least 30,000. The fossil record confirms human (Homo sapiens) developed relationships with canines as far back as the times of the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). From these early wild canids evolved the domestic dog. Humans and their dog companions have been together for the last 15,000 years or so, which is a very long time for BFFs. Dogs and humans are two different mammalian species that have developed a highly beneficial, co-evolutionary relationship. No other interspecific relationship, between two species, is as complex and mutually beneficial as the dog-human companionship. The success of our canine companions’ relationship is their ability to communicate and cooperate with humans, a separate species. However, how this communication occurs between humans and dogs is debatable.

The Human Perspective

A recent study published in the January 2016 issue of the Royal Society’s Biology Letters* reports that “dogs recognize dog and human emotions” by using the senses of hearing and vision. Why hearing and vision? Because these are the two senses that humans use, so naturally human psychologists assume that these are the two senses the dogs used. This is a prime example of thinking from the Human’s Perspective, which is a common way of thinking by many human psychologists. The link to the 2016 Biology Letters publication is provided below. You are urged to read the study yourself, so that you can understand the study’s design.

The Dog’s Perspective

Dogs are experts at reading human emotions, but NOT through vision and hearing, as suggested by the study. The reported study conclusions may sound plausible, based on the Human’s Perspective, but not practical based on the Dog’s Perspective. Humans want to believe that dogs look at us, just like we look at them. We want to believe that they interpret sounds and sights just like humans, but they don’t. First, dogs work primarily off of SMELL (a.k.a Olfactory Sense). Humans have very little concept of communication via olfaction, but it is a dog’s primary, go-to sense. This difference CANNOT be ignored. Dog brains are 1/3 olfactory lobe. In significant contrast, the olfactory bulbs of human brain are smaller than two slivers of human pinky fingers. There is NO comparison! Dogs can read human emotions, but it is through olfaction, not sights and sounds. If dogs can smell drugs, bombs, cancer and someone about to have a seizure, dogs can smell emotions. Dogs smell fear. Why do you think you should never act afraid near an animal?

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Humans & Dogs View the Same World Differently

Secondly, the study was showing images on a screen/monitor that has a flicker rate appropriate for human vision (60 Hz), but NOT appropriate for dog’s vision (70-80 Hz). The assumption that dogs view their world just like a human through vision and hearing is impractical, inappropriate and misguided. Dogs definitely do not “see” the world like humans because most of their “seeing” is through their beautiful, magical and extremely complex noses! When humans start recognizing that we need to better understand olfactory communication, maybe then we can start understanding how dogs perceive and communicate with their world. We need to understand dogs from The Dog’s Perspective and not assume dogs view the world like us, through the Human’s Perspective. 

*Albuquerque, N, Guo, K et. al. 2016. Dogs recognize Dog and human emotions. Biology Letters 12(1): 12 20150883, Retrieved from

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is a trainer, consultant and coach for dogs and their human companions through Lucky Dog Training Asheville. She has over 30 years of training experience. The Dog’s Perspective is a training philosophy based on how dogs think. Kathryn is an evolutionary biologist and teaches higher education biology courses.

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