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Research Shows _ Dogs Can Understand Words and Emotions

Dogs tend to be good listeners, and they can have an uncanny knack for knowing exactly how we feel. No wonder they're our best friends! But how much do they really understand about what we’re saying or feeling? Research indicates that dogs understand human emotions and words better than we thought.

Can Dogs Sense Emotions?

Does your dog cuddle up to you when you get weepy during a sappy movie? Or jump around in excitement when you’re happy about great news? It often seems like our dogs are in tune with what our emotions and respond in kind. They may try to cheer us up when we’re sad or join us in our celebrations.

A recent study shows that these kinds of reactions are because dogs recognize how we’re feeling. In this research, dogs were shown pictures of people expressing six emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust. They were also shown a neutral face. The researchers measured the heart rates and stress levels of the dogs as they looked at these different photos.

Dogs had a stronger reaction when they viewed fear, anger, and happiness. Their heart rates went up and their stress levels increased. It makes sense that fear and anger would elicit this response since they are heightened emotions that can make a dog feel threatened. Happiness is also an excited state, which helps account for the dogs' reaction to smiling faces. In addition, dogs may mistake the pulled back lips and bared teeth of a smile as a sign of aggression.

Another interesting finding of the study was the way that the dogs turned their heads when they looked at the photos. They turned their heads to the left when they saw fearful, angry, or happy pictures, and they turned to the right when they looked at a surprised face, which is a non-threatening emotion for a dog. This suggests that negative emotions are processed by the right side of a dog's brain while more positive ones are processed on the left.

Do Dogs Understand Words?

Dogs can be trained to understand commands, such as "sit," "stay," and the ever important "no." Your dog may also react when you say, "Look at the birds!" running to the window excitedly to get a peek. But what does your dog think of when they hear the word "bird?" Do they actually picture a feathered, winged animal in their mind?

To find out, a group of researchers conducted a study where they used an fMRI scanner to measure the brain activity of dogs. Don't worry—the dogs were well taken care of during the study. They were free to walk out of the scanner at any time, and the study was done in accordance with the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals of the National Institutes of Health.

The study indicated that dogs have a rudimentary neural representation of words they have been taught. Their brains were also more active when they heard unfamiliar words over words they had been taught. This may be due to the fact that our dogs are people-pleasers. They may be focusing hard on the new word in hopes of understanding it, earning our praise, and getting a treat. And what dog doesn’t love a treat?


Don’t go overboard on the treats since they can contain lots of unhealthy fats and sugars. Learn more about dog nutrition.


The Evolution of Dogs

Our dogs' ability to connect with humans may be traced back to their evolution from wolves. Wolves started to visit the campsites of human hunters to eat the food they threw away. The wolves that approached the hunters aggressively would be chased away or killed, while the friendlier ones would have been tolerated and even accepted by the hunters. The amicable wolves would survive and pass their genes down to the next generation.

As wolves were domesticated over many years, their bond with humans would grow. It would be to their advantage to strengthen their understanding of the people around them. All of this helps explain our dog's remarkable ability to understand what we're thinking or feeling.

how dogs communicate with humans _ very happy Australian cattle dog

How Dogs Communicate

Obviously, dogs can't speak to us in words, but they sure know how to cue us in on how they’re feeling or what they need using their voice and body language. Sometimes it's easy to figure out what they're trying to tell us. For instance, if your dog scratches at the door and whines, you probably need to let them out to pee. If your dog plants themselves in front of an empty food bowl and makes little barking noises, they're likely reminding you that it's mealtime.

These are obvious examples, but it may not always be clear what our dogs are trying to say. While there are individual differences, there are signs that can help you decipher some of your dog's basic emotions:

  • Scared – Frightened dogs may lick their lips and yawn, but not out of sleepiness. They may cower down, tuck in their tail, and push back their ears. They may also tremble, look away, and lean back from whatever is making them feel uncomfortable. Fearfulness can lead to aggression if the dog gets overwhelmed.
  • Excited – If your dog is excited, you'll likely see a lot of tail wagging and maybe some jumping up and down to try and grab your attention. An excited pup may push their ears forward and open their eyes wide. They may also bark and lunge.
  • Anxious – Dogs experiencing anxiety may start panting or pacing. They may pin their ears back and lower their bodies closer to the ground. Depending on your dog and the situation, they may either "shut down" or react energetically barking and lunging at the stressor. Like fear, anxiety can turn into aggression. Ongoing anxiety can also result in unwanted behaviors, such as excessive barking or destructive chewing.
  • Aggression – Dogs who are feeling upset may show start showing signs of aggression. They may stiffen their bodies, bare their teeth, growl, and bark. Aggressive behaviors usually advance through stages ending in potentially dangerous behaviors, such as lunging and biting, without careful intervention. It's important to know how to recognize and manage aggressive behaviors in dogs.
  • Relaxed – A relaxed dog looks very chill. They may have a loose body and a slightly open mouth, which may turn up at the corners as if they’re smiling. Their head and ears may be in a neutral position, and their tail may swish around contentedly.

improving communication with your dog _ couple with a yellow Labrador outdoors

How to Improve Communication with Your Dog

One of the best things you can do to improve your ability to understand your dog is to spend lots of time with them and observe them closely. This will help you detect even the most subtle clues, such as a slight tail wag or shift in body posture, that can indicate how your dog is feeling or what they might need at the moment.

Additionally, this will give you a better idea of when you need to intervene or make changes to support your dog. For instance, if you notice that your dog is stressed out by unfamiliar dogs, you can take steps to reduce their anxiety, such as gradually introducing them to other dogs in a controlled and supervised environment. You can also try tactics like taking walks on less popular routes or during times when fewer people are out.

Understanding your dog's behaviors can also help you figure out if they're hurt or sick and when a trip to the veterinarian may be warranted. If your dog isn't feeling well, they may become anxious or act aggressively, especially if you touch a painful area, like a bruised paw pad or bloated tummy.

If you do need to take your dog to the veterinarian, pet insurance can help you manage the cost. Get a free quote for your dog now.

The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.


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