Your dog, it seems, is perfectly capable of knowing what’s going on inside your head: They can pick up on when you’re being a jerk, and when you don’t have all the info you need to make good choices, and when you’re being too dumb to give helpful advice.
But what do they do with all that information? Depending on the situation, they might judge you, or help you out, or ignore you completely. Or they might just step their paws into your shoes and feel what you’re feeling. In a study published earlier this week in the journal Animal Cognition, a team of animal-behavior researchers found that dogs are just as susceptible to “emotional contagion” — or the idea that we can “catch” the feelings of those around us — with humans as they are with members of their own species.
Led by Annika Huber, a researcher at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, the authors recruited 53 dogs for the study, noting their canine subjects’ behavior as they listened to recordings of positive and negative sounds from both other dogs (playful barks, sad whines) and humans (laughing, crying), as well as emotionally neutral background sounds like rain and crickets. Their observations fell into three main categories: First, the dogs reacted differently to emotional sounds than they did to the neutral ones, approaching the speaker in the room or looking at their owner more frequently when the noise was happy or sad. Second, they also seemed to be able to distinguish between sad and happy sounds. And third, the dogs tended to behave the same way in response to the sound of a given emotion regardless of whether it was canine or human.
Taken together, the study authors argued, these three findings make a convincing case for dogs’ susceptibility to emotional contagion. It’s a pretty jargony name for a finding that’s so warm and fuzzy: Your dog loves snacks and belly rubs, sure, but they also love you enough to feel what you feel.
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