Feeling Blue? Your Dog Is Likely to Be the First to Know

Study suggests dogs and humans use similar brain mechanisms to process social information.

Dogs are sensitive to the emotions that humans convey when they talk to them, according to a new study published in the journal Current Biology.

The study was the first to compare brain functions between humans and any non-primate animal, according to the Discovery News website. It found that both dogs and humans evolved to listen for emotion when someone communicates.
We humans can tell if a person or dog sounds happy or sad, for example, or if he or she is ready to fight. Dogs can do the same.

If you say something to your dog and he looks as though he understands, there’s a good chance he really does — at least in terms of the emotions you are conveying. This is probably one reason why dogs are so good at reading us. They are super sensitive to how you are really feeling, as opposed to focusing on what you are saying.

“Dogs and humans share a similar social environment,” co-author Attila Andics, of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, said in a press release. “Our findings suggest that they also use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species.”

For the study, Andics and colleagues trained 11 dogs to lie motionless in an fMRI brain scanner; a group of human test subjects did the same. The researchers then monitored brain activity while the dogs and people listened to nearly 200 dog and human sounds, ranging from whining or crying to playful barking or laughing.

The study showed that hearing a voice activates similar areas of the brain in both dogs and humans, though the brains of dogs are more tuned to their own species.

An interesting difference noted in the study is that, in dogs, 48 percent of all sound-sensitive brain regions respond more strongly to sounds other than voices. That’s in contrast to humans, in which only 3 percent of sound-sensitive brain regions show greater response to non-vocal sounds.

In other words, people pay more attention to people talking than to, say, the sound of a squirrel chattering outside. Dogs still retain more of their wild ways, so the latter would be just as important to them.

The scientists say the study represents just the first step toward understanding how dogs are so good at figuring out the feelings of their humans.

“This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs,” Andics concluded. “At last we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment.”