When we yawn, they yawn. When we cry, they pad up to us to see what’s wrong. And when we make furious inquiries as to the whereabouts of the sandwich we left on the sofa ten minutes ago, they have a look of wounded innocence that would not be out of place on Jeffrey Archer.
Dogs can instinctively “read” human emotions and may even have a crude notion of abstract feelings such as joy and anger, according to biologists.
It is the first time any animal has been found to detect mental states across a species divide, and goes far beyond the simple pattern recognition that has previously been observed in dogs.
Scientists at the universities of Lincoln and São Paulo said that the animals appeared to have “cognitive abilities not known to exist beyond humans” after they discovered that dogs of various breeds could match voices to faces expressing the same emotion.
The emotional compass seemed to be so fundamental that British pets could tell whether strangers speaking a foreign language — in this case Brazilian Portuguese — were cheerful or upset.
Dogs acquired a deep-rooted knack for picking out the nuances in their master’s voice at some point on the 30,000-year genetic odyssey from Siberian wolves to west highland terriers, the researchers believe.
The academics’ test involved 17 adult dogs, including three labradors, two collies and a deerhound named Rodney. The researchers showed them pairs of black and white pictures of the happy or unhappy faces of police dogs and drama students.
As they gazed at the faces, the dogs heard recordings of playful or aggressive barks and people saying venha ca — Portuguese for “come here” — in an upbeat or angry tone.
The scientists measured the amount of time the dogs spent staring at each face and found they were much more likely to look at the portrait that matched the emotion in the voice.
Although the dogs were better at recognising the feelings of other dogs, they also picked the correct human face significantly more often than not.
Natalia Albuquerque, the PhD student who led the experiment, said it was the first clear evidence that dogs could not only discriminate between their owners’ facial expressions, but also link emotional signals from different senses in a way implying abstract recognition.
“Being able to appropriately respond to our task means that the dogs heard the sound and then they were looking at the corresponding image,” she said.
“The only correspondence between these two stimuli is the emotional content. So being able to match happy facial expression with a happy vocalisation means the dogs had to recall a template, a cognitive representation.”
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