Your Dog Really Loves It When You Smile

If you have or have ever had a dog, you know that they really know you. Feeling blue or a little under the weather? Denver the greyhound knows it, and she'll scurry right by your side to calm and comfort you through your Netflix binge. Turns out, science is on board with the emotional link between humans and pups. Yes, your dog really can read you like a book.

Impressive Pooches

Raise your hand if you baby-talk to your dog any time you ask "D'you wanna go for a walk? Wanna go for a walk?!" It just comes out of you that way — we know, we get it. According to a January 2016 study published by Brazilian and UK researchers in Biology Letters, your dog is recognizing that cutesy enthusiasm in your voice and face. The study found that dogs can recognize emotions in fellow canines as well as in humans, a feat no other non-human species has been known to do. Knowing how we're feeling is pretty advantageous to the survival of our furry friends, after all.

In the study, dogs were presented with images of dog and human faces expressing different emotions. With the images, researchers played positive, negative, and neutral vocalizations and noises, such as angry or happy barking and an unfamiliar human speaking happily or angrily in Portuguese, a language none of the dogs had heard before. The dogs looked significantly longer at the faces — both doggy and person — that matched the emotion of the vocalization. Being able to mash visual and auditory information together like this is a pretty nifty trait, and is considered a higher cognitive talent.

Smile! You're on Canine Camera

For a study released in March 2018 on the preprint server bioRxiv, researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico tapped into what is actually happening in your dog's noggin when it recognizes your emotions. To look at the neural mechanisms at play, the researchers trained eight dogs to lie still in an MRI scanner and showed them photos of humans with happy and neutral expressions. When the dogs viewed human faces, there was increased brain activity in the dogs' temporal cortex (involved in information processing) and caudate (involved in learning and the reward system). The result of the research? A happy human face triggered a signature in a dog's brain that was distinct from any other emotion. This happiness pattern was so distinct, in fact, that a machine learning program could use the dog's brain activity to predict when it was looking at a happy human. Makes you smile, doesn't it?

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Want to dive deeper into the doggy brain? Check out Cat Warren's New York Times-bestselling book "What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 27, 2018

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