Dogs Can Understand Emotional Expression On Humans' Faces & Tilt Their Head Depending On Them, According To A Study

As if they weren’t perfect and beautiful enough, dogs can understand emotional expression on human faces, according to a new study. Science has further confirmed what we all know to be true: human as a species truly do not deserve the magical angel creatures that are dogs.

The recent research, published in Springer’s journal Learning & Behavior, suggests dogs’ connection with people may go deeper than we thought. The study was conducted with 26 dogs, each of which were shown pictures showing six different human emotions: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, or just a neutral expression. (And you thought Inside Out was purely Pixar fiction.) The results found that dogs showed more significant response as well as increased heart rate when shown faces in “arousing emotional states” like anger, happiness, and fear. The increase in cardiac activity also suggests dogs feel an increased level of stress in response to these types of emotions.

Additionally, dogs seem to process human emotion in distinct parts of their brain, according to this new research. Dogs tended to turn their heads to the left when they saw faces expressing stronger emotions like anger, fear, and joy. In response to “surprised” faces, dogs turned their head to the right. Researchers attributed this to dogs deeming “surprise” as a “non-threatening” or even relaxed expression.

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“Clearly arousing, negative emotions seem to be processed by the right hemisphere of a dog's brain, and more positive emotions by the left side,” study co-author Marcello Siniscalchi said in a release for the research. Thus, the results mirror previous research in mammals which suggests that the right side of the brain is responsible for regulating the sympathetic nervous system, which involves “fight or flight” response.

The results also confirm similar research conducted in 2016 which suggested dogs can read emotion. The study, conducted by the University of Lincoln's School of Psychology, involved showing the dogs visual cues as well as auditory samples. Researchers found that dogs use a combination of senses in order to read a human’s emotions. Researcher Dr. Kun Guo said:

“Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorization of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”

This previous research also suggests that dogs understand more than our tone of voice. When dogs in the dog heard familiar “praise” words in a positive tone of voice, their brains’ “reward center” was stimulated. However, when dogs heard “familiar “praise” words in a neutral tone, their brain still recognized the words as familiar. Meaning, a tonal match of message and intonation may work well as positive reinforcement, but dogs are processing what we’re saying regardless of tone. So, in theory, a “good dog” will do. But, if we’re being honest, you’ll probably stick to your usual “GOOD DOG YOU’RE SO GOOD WHO IS GOOD YOU ARE I LOVE YOU YOU’RE GOOD!”

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This response to human emotion isn’t the only thing humans share with dogs. A recent study found that dogs “lie” to their owners in order to get what they want. Our canine friends also experience similar emotions as humans with one study suggesting that dogs’ worries keep them up at night. What do our sweet, little doggos have to worry about? Not getting enough treats and pets?

With all we share with dogs, it’s no wonder a majority of people would rather hang out with their dogs than human companions. I mean, they’re pretty comparable in the emotional intuitiveness department.