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Can Dogs Sense Human Emotions?

written by Tori Holmes

It goes without saying that as pet parents, we develop a close emotional connection with our dogs – we’re able to recognize their feelings as easily as we do our own. But have you ever wondered “can dogs sense human emotions”? Extensive research has been done in this field and the results may (or may not) surprise you.

How well can dogs sense human emotions?

Pet parents know very well that dogs have an extraordinary ability to read human emotions, but in recent years this hunch has been backed by scientific research. In fact, numerous studies have found that dogs use three main senses – sight, smell, and hearing – to determine human emotions.

  • Dogs can read our facial expressions: Dogs can recognize six basic emotions – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust – and process these in similar ways as humans, with changes to heart rate and gaze.

  • Dogs can smell our emotional changes: Due to their elevated sense of smell, dogs are highly sensitive to changes in our body odor that are undetectable to other humans. Dogs can smell the chemical changes that occur when we feel different emotions, such as happiness or anger, and this impacts their response. For example, studies found that when dogs are exposed to the scent of fear, they exhibit more stressful behaviors and higher heart rates than when they were exposed to happy scents.

  • Dogs can hear the differences between our emotions: Dogs are also able to understand the emotional tones of our voices – particularly the difference between positive and negative sounds. Not only that, but they can match the sound to the corresponding facial expression! Studies have shown that dogs pay more attention to facial expressions which match the emotional state of an accompanying vocalization.

What this means is that, like humans, dogs take into account the inputs from several senses to understand how a human is feeling and then respond accordingly. Want to learn more about how to understand your dog’s emotions? Take a look at this blog.

dog and his pet parent by the water

Why a dog’s ability to sense human emotions makes them great support animals

So, can dogs sense human emotions? Researchers would say the answer to this question is a resounding yes! Not only does this mean that our dogs can connect with us emotionally, but it also makes them exceptionally well-suited for work as service dogs.

We’re proud to work with 4 Paws for Ability, an organization that enriches the lives of people with disabilities by placing life-changing service dogs. Their team breeds, raises, and trains their service dogs in preparation to assist their partner with specific tasks and skills that mitigate the impacts of their partner’s disabilities.

Currently, 4 Paws places 11 different types of service dogs who are trained to perform a multitude of tasks to mitigate various disabilities. While the ability to sense human emotions is helpful for all service animals, there are a few types for which it is particularly important.

  • Autism Assistance Dogs: A key role of autism assistance dogs is behavior redirection. Meltdowns and sensory needs are common challenges for children with autism and Autism Assistance Dogs can be trained to calm, comfort, and redirect a child’s behavior. Placing their paw on the child’s leg, and applying deep pressure or kisses are all examples of how they can redirect behavior in the moment.

  • FASD Assistance Dogs: Similar to Autism Assistance Dogs, FASD Assistance Dogs can be trained to provide a calming influence and support with sensory overload. These dogs are trained to learn a unique set of commands to help stop and replace a specific behavior. For instance, when their handler is experiencing sensory overload repetitive behavior or compulsive thought patterns.

Benefits of adopting a dog

Even if you don’t require a service dog, adopting a dog is a great way to improve your life and your mental health.

  • Unconditional love: Dogs love with no strings attached – the love they give you isn’t based on expecting something in return. The experience of receiving unconditional love can increase your feelings of happiness and optimism, both of which are important to overall mental wellness.

  • Structure: Having some form of structure in your day can help you feel more grounded and give you a sense of purpose and achievement. Dogs are creatures of habit, so they will naturally help you stick to a daily routine that revolves around their meals, exercise, and playtime.

  • Anxiety reduction: When you start to experience feelings of anxiety, something as simple as petting your dog can be very soothing. Research has shown that petting a dog actually lowers the stress hormone cortisol!

If you had ever thought to yourself, “can dogs sense human emotions?” then we hope that you have your answer! Thanks to the numerous studies that have been conducted on this topic, it’s safe to say that dogs can sense human emotions – especially those of their close human companions.

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