That is exactly what a team of researchers from the University of Lincoln in the UK and the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil have attempted to discern. Why is this being studied?
Because being able to combine two different inputs (sight and sound) to understand mood has only been observed in humans to this point.
The study involved showing dogs image and sound pairs while watching the dogs attention. They used both positive and negative emotions in their testing.
What did they find?
That you have your dog’s attention longer when your facial expression matched your vocal tone. Likewise a dog will pay attention longer to a corresponding visual and auditory stimulus from other dogs longer versus a mismatched visual and auditory stimulus.
The researchers claim that this is evidence that the dogs are forming “abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states” and not simply displaying a learned behavior.
Previous studies have indicated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions from cues such as facial expressions, but this is not the same as emotional recognition,” said Kun Guo from the University of Lincoln. “Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states.”
“Importantly, the dogs in our trials received no prior training or period of familiarisation with the subjects in the images or audio,” says Mills. “This suggests that dogs’ ability to combine emotional cues may be intrinsic. As a highly social species, such a tool would have been advantageous and the detection of emotion in humans may even have been selected for over generations of domestication by us.”
This shows that these dogs had the ability to recognize the emotion and not just respond from associative behavior. An example of an associative behavior would be cowering when confronted with an angry voice.
You can read more about their experiment in the journal Biology Letters.
What do you think, Can dogs interpret emotion or are they simply responding based on a learned response?