March 30, 2023

Dogs developed the ability to perceive basic human manifestations

published on 29/01/2023 06:00

    (credit: personal file)

(credit: personal file)

Pet owners have always claimed that best friends can understand them. Science is now certain of it. A review of the scientific literature published in the special edition of the journal Evolutionary Human Sciences, published by the University of Cambridge, shows that dogs have the ability to recognize the emotional states of humans and respond accordingly, ensuring the success of group interaction in which they live. This ability would have been formed during the coexistence of species, estimated at least 10,000 years ago.

According to the article, in their shared evolutionary history, dogs may have been inadvertently selected to cope with the complexity of social relationships created by different species. Animals would have developed several mechanisms to facilitate interaction with humans, and reading emotions is one of them.

“We know that, during the period of domestication, a cooperative relationship was established between dogs and humans and a very important emotional bond for both,” says Carine Savalli Redigolo, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and head of the Laboratory . of Canine Ethology of the institution. “It is reasonable to assume that the success of this relationship was the result of elaborate communication and the ability to perceive and react appropriately to each other’s emotions,” the researcher emphasizes.

“It is important to think about the advantages that each dog will have when it perceives the emotional states of people and responds accordingly,” emphasizes Briseida Resende, professor at the Institute of Psychology at the University of São Paulo (USP) and co-author. of the article. “If the dog lives near humans and can maximize what it gets from resources to live (food, shelter, for example) by perceiving emotional states and responding in a way that humans will reward, it will have the advantage of increasing resources. and, consequently, increasing their chances of survival,” explains the researcher of the relationship between men and animals.

The USP professor points out, however, that this does not mean that dogs can attribute mental states to humans. “It’s a response based on their learning history, based on their physiological resources,” he emphasizes.


In the article, Briseida Resende and Natalia Albuquerque, a biologist and animal behaviorist, respectively, report that, although recent, the study of emotion perception in non-primate species is on the rise. “They (animals) discriminate and show differential responses to emotional cues expressed through body posture, facial expressions, vocalizations, and odors, and emotional cues can influence their behavior. “In our studies, we found that dogs not only recognize our emotions, they can also infer whether we are happy or angry and what the consequences are,” adds Natalia Albuquerque.

Yorkshire teacher Nina maid Sueli Assis, 41, has no doubt the 5-year-old dog can understand her. “I think dogs can get emotionally involved with handlers because they are sensitive beings to the emotions around them,” she says. He says that, late last year, he had to rest for a few days and the Yorkshire immediately changed behaviour. “Nina was always at the side of the bed, we feel that she was also quieter in those days, as if she understood that the moment was one of rest and without disturbance.”

The article by the USP researchers points out that studies suggest that the ability to recognize and respond to emotions is not exclusive to domestic dogs. Even those who live on the streets have this ability – it is estimated that 80% of the world’s dog population is in this condition. In India, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research conducts studies on dog behavior and social interaction with humans. One found that strays gauge human intent—whether friendly or threatening—in a food-provisioning test.

“Being able to read other people’s emotions helps you decide who you want to interact with, who you want to share food with, who you want to get close to, and who is unavailable to you,” sums up Natalia Albuquerque. “Certainly, throughout the shared evolutionary period between dogs and humans, these skills have been critical to bringing the two species together, to forming bonds and maintaining relationships. Today, we share our lives with animals who are in harmony with us, who can understand us.”

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Much more than a snack

    (credit: Personal Archive)

credit: personal file

For more than 10,000 years of coexistence, recognizing basic emotions and knowing how to respond appropriately to them has given dogs a critical advantage in forming and maintaining bonds with Homo sapiens, says biologist Natalia de Souza Albuquerque, a researcher at University of Sao Paulo. with an MA, PhD and post-doc at the Institute of Psychology at USP. Author of dozens of articles on animal behavior and co-author of a book on dog cognition, published in 2017, the scientist explains that animals’ reactions to human emotional states help to adapt their behavior appropriately.(EN)

As far as is known, is the ability to recognize human emotional states and respond appropriately to them unique to dogs?

Dogs go far beyond associating a happy face with a treat and an angry face with a scolding. They can recognize people’s emotional expressions, being able to integrate the information we pass through our face and voice. But, contrary to what many believe, this is not an exclusive ability of our best friend. We now know that horses and cats that live with humans are also sensitive to our emotions and can recognize the emotional content of our facial expressions and auditory expression, in positive and negative situations. We don’t yet know if other non-human animals have this ability, but goats have already shown that they can distinguish between a smiling face and an angry face, which is a prerequisite for more complex skills like recognition.

Is this ability shared by stray dogs or is it only seen in domestic dogs?

We believe that this ability belongs not only to certain individuals, but to all species. Despite the wide variety of shapes, sizes, colors and functions, all dogs belong to a single species: Canis familiaris. We are still in the infancy of our knowledge of stray dogs. Indeed, working with these animals is a complex and complicated task. However, some research groups around the world have done very important work with animals living on the streets, showing that these dogs have many of the skills that have been demonstrated for domesticated dogs. It’s only a matter of time before we learn more about his abilities.

Do dogs obviously understand and respond to all emotional situations, even the most complex ones?

When we talk about emotions, we have to think of two big groups: primary and secondary. The primary ones consist of the six basic emotions (joy, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, and surprise) and the secondary ones are called self-awareness (shame, jealousy, guilt, among others). To date, studies of emotion perception in dogs have been conducted with basic emotions, so we know that they can recognize and infer emotional states of happiness and anger, and are sensitive to expressions of sadness. For the rest there is still a big question mark.

What are the main evolutionary advantages that dogs get with this ability?

Expressing emotions makes it possible to convey information about how I feel, about my motivations and intentions. On the other hand, emotion perception makes it possible to get information about how the other person feels, what they want, and even what they are going to do. Acquiring this information enables me to predict the other’s behavior and adjust my own.

evolutionary puzzle

In the prestigious scientific journal Evolutionary Human Sciences, Natalia Albuquerque and Briseida Resende make the connection between the results observed so far in this area of ​​research focused on the interaction between humans and dogs. According to the authors’ analysis, the accumulated evidence from these studies proves that dogs are able to read human emotions and use this information in a functional way, that is, they adjust their own behaviors and react appropriately depending on the emotion they are experiencing. man has. expresses (eg joy, anger, sadness). This article advances our understanding of the relationship between humans and dogs by systematizing and combining information obtained in recent studies and discussing the results together through the lens of an evolutionary perspective. It is necessary to understand the adaptive value of a behavior, that is, how the behavior can guarantee the individual the necessary resources for his survival in the environment in which he lives. The article makes these connections and puts together the pieces of an evolutionary puzzle, expanding our knowledge of this relationship that is so important to both humans and dogs.

Carine Savalli Redigolo, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and head of the institution’s Dog Ethology Laboratory.

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