By Avani Papadopoulos
Dogs and humans are more alike than you may think. Have you noticed that your dog gets antsy when you’re feeling stressed, or maybe they will know when to comfort you? It’s complicated because a dog’s cerebral cortex is better developed than that of many other animals, but still much less developed than a human’s.
Basically, dogs feel sensation and emotion similar to how we do. According to PetMD, “Studies have shown they’re capable of feeling optimism, anxiety, happiness, fear and depression.” The limbic system is responsible for emotions, and a dog’s is very much similar to that of a human’s. Both systems share the cingulate gyrus (involved in processing emotion and regulating behavior), septum (acts as an anatomical barrier), olfactory bulb (processes smells), hypothalamus (releases hormones and regulates body temperature), amygdala (plays a key role in processing emotions), mammillary body (helps with memory), and hippocampus (center for memory).
It is thought that dogs are able to get PTSD from traumatic events because of their well-developed hippocampus. Your dog wants to feel that they are safe, and they know this when their owner has control over them, not the other way around. When their safety is threatened, they react much like a human, producing emotions of stress, fear, anxiety, and even aggressiveness.
Just as it may be found odd if somebody you don’t know is staring at you, dogs take it the same way. They are good at reading your eyes and other body language, however, when meeting a dog you have not met before, it’s probably best if you don’t make direct eye contact with them because it can be seen as a threat or an act of aggression, so be mindful of that.
Dogs also have a great sense of smell, one that can detect the production of all kinds of hormones and brain chemicals. They can smell the increase and decrease in amounts of serotonin, a brain chemical that is connected to depression. Dogs can also smell cortisol, which gives away our anxiety levels, and may be how they know to comfort us during rough times, or even just leave us alone. Some dogs can sense blood sugar levels, which may be helpful to people with diabetes.
Becky Williams, a sophomore, said that she loves how one of her dogs is very chill, so it’s nice to cuddle with her, while the other is more outgoing and energetic, so it’s fun to play with her. When asked if her dogs could pick up on how she or her family is feeling, Becky responded by saying, “My older dog can definitely tell when any of our family is sad. She just knows stuff, like she can tell when we’re going to leave or go on vacation, and then my other dog has no clue.”
Dogs also know when you’re being unfair to them. “A study found in the journal of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when dogs saw you giving more attention to another pet in the house they would become distressed and anxious.”
Esther Gonzalez, a sophomore as well, said that she likes going places with her dog and considers her to be her “companion.” Although Esther said that her dog doesn’t really pick up on emotional cues, she definitely notices when Esther isn’t paying attention to her.
A test was conducted to see whether dogs could distinguish positive from negative emotions purely by listening to human vocalizations expressing different emotions, since humans and dogs process sounds in similar ways and have the same ‘voice areas’ in their brains.
According to Americanverterinarian, “First, 14 men and women recorded vocalizations of the 6 basic human emotions: happiness, surprise, disgust, fear, sadness, and anger. These recordings were then divided into 3 sets of 6 vocalizations, with each vocalization representing 1 emotion.”
It is known that the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body, and that the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body. The right side of the brain is primarily responsible for negative emotions, while the left side of the brain is primarily responsible for positive emotions.
After each of the thirty dogs listened to one of the three sets, it was found that “Fear, sadness, and anger vocalizations elicited left head turns, indicating right brain dominance in response to negative emotional sounds. In contrast, the happiness vocalization provoked right head turns, indicating left brain dominance after hearing positive emotional sounds.” Tail wagging after hearing the happiness vocalization also indicated that dogs are able to understand positive versus negative emotions. Other factors, like heart rate, were tested as well. When a dog heard an angry vocalization, their heart rate increased compared to baseline. All in all, it was concluded that dogs can perceive negative and positive emotions through human vocalizations.
Olivia Morrison, another sophomore, said that she enjoys playing fetch outside with her dog and cuddling with her. Her dog brightens up her day because she’s always excited to see her and her family. Olivia said, “Whenever we’re around or she sees us or hears us coming down the stairs, we hear her tail thumping against the ground.” She said that her dog can also understand when she is mad at her as well as when she’s guilty.
When your dog is behaving, however, it would be a good idea to reward him or her. Not only by giving treats, but petting and saying “good” and then whatever your dog’s name is helps them associate the word “good” with themselves for when they are behaving correctly. Just like with your friends and family, it’s important to show your dog that you care.
Image courtesy of sunnyskyz.com