Mentalism: how dogs can read minds

We'll never really know what they're thinking - photo credit Jeff (Flickr)

Many dog owners will swear the best thing about their beloved pooch is they know exactly what you’re thinking and, unable to comment, can’t put their paw in it and make the situation worse. Dogs seem to understand exactly what type of comfort you need and offer it, unconditionally.

Others may think you’re barking mad in believing dogs have highly developed mental or intuitive abilities. But, next time someone tries to tell you your dog has no chance of becoming the next Simon Baker you can politely inform them that science has proved otherwise. The latest research offers an insight into the minds of our woofs, demonstrating how dogs understand and feel human emotions.


Dogs sense when we're happy which makes them pretty happy too - photo credit Keith Kissel (Flickr)
Dogs sense when we’re happy which makes them pretty happy too – photo credit Keith Kissel (Flickr)

Research carried out by the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, found that dogs are able to tell the difference between happy and sad faces. Scientists put 11 dogs through choice trials, in which they had to pick between strange faces with either happy or angry expressions, all in exchange for a treat.

The dogs were presented with either the top, bottom, or left half of a face to see if they could identify a happy face with the smile covered or, an angry face with the eyes covered etc. Those trained to pick out happy expressions did so when presented with different halves of a face and also faces the animals hadn’t seen before. The dogs trained to respond to angry faces were also able to pick out angry expressions but, it took them longer to learn their task than the dogs trained on happy faces.

This proves that dogs really do know what that smile on your face means or else they are extremely intelligent beings, knowing exactly what to do for a treat. Either way, you have to love them especially when they give you that special smile of their own.


Dogs may not feel our pain but they react to tears more than humming - photo credit hannah k (Flickr)
Dogs may not feel our pain but they react to tears more than humming – photo credit hannah k (Flickr)

In a study published in the journal Animal Cognition, University of London researchers found that dogs are more likely to approach a crying person than someone who was humming or talking, and respond to weeping with submissive behaviours.

Humming was used in this research as it was a novel behaviour for the dogs and likely to stir curiosity. The fact that the dogs differentiated between crying and humming indicates that their response to crying was not purely driven by curiosity. Rather, the crying carried greater emotional meaning for the dogs and provoked a stronger overall response than either humming or talking.

Dogs may not be able to understand human pain but this research shows our pooches can recognise sorrow. Some dogs go so far as to lick tears away and although this may be because your dog is a salt-addict it sure makes you feel a whole lot better.


What's true love without a bit of jealousy? - photo credit Michael (Flickr)
What’s true love without a bit of jealousy? – photo credit Michael (Flickr)

Christine Harris, a psychologist at the University of California at San Diego, using a jealousy study previously used on 6-month-old human babies, carried out her own study to determine if dogs feel jealousy.The study recorded dogs’ reactions while their owners ignored them and instead gave attention to a stuffed animal, a bucket or a pop-up book that they read aloud.

The dogs’ reactions suggested that they were assessing the competition to see if action was required which for them, it usually was. Out of the 36 dogs observed 78% would nudge or touch the owner when that person was petting and sweet-talking the toy dog; 42% were affected by the attention toward the bucket, and 22% were bothered when the book was the focus of the owner’s attention. Nearly a third of the dogs tried to place themselves between the owner and the stuffed dog.

This suggests that dogs are equally guilty of being overcome by the green eyed monster but it also proves they care!


Go on, you know you want to yawn - photo credit Bruce Fingerhood (Flickr)
Go on, you know you want to yawn – photo credit Bruce Fingerhood (Flickr)

Scientists already knew that dogs sometimes yawn when they see people yawn, but it was unclear as to why they yawned. Was it contagious or a sign of anxiety or stress?  A study by the University of Tokyo has suggested the reason is that dogs are “emotionally connected” to people.  

The study showed that dogs yawned more in response to their owners’ yawns but also yawned less when they saw fake yawns from their owners or from strangers. This suggests they were exhibiting true contagious yawning but, how does this relate to an emotional connection?

In the case of people, scientists suspect that contagious yawning is a form of empathising with people experiencing a feeling. Elisabetta Palagi,  of the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies in Rome, noted that this study is the first time that scientists have shown contagious yawning occurring between different species.

I’m beginning to feel like our canine pals understand us more than our human pals who tend to yawn because we’re talking, not because they empathise with us.


We'll never really know what they're thinking - photo credit Jeff (Flickr)
We’ll never really know what they’re thinking – photo credit Jeff (Flickr)

Dogs’ understanding of human forms of communication is something that has evolved and developed in them because of their long association with humans. Marc Bekoff, a behavioural ecologist who specialises in canines at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has carried out research in dog play. He believes that beneath this dog-to-dog fun there is a hidden language that can be compared to human-like morality.

If three dogs are playing and one is too rough, the other two are likely to give him the cold shoulder and stop playing with him, Bekoff says. Such behaviour, he says, suggests that dogs are capable of morality, a mind-set once thought to be uniquely human. What’s more, having this morality requires a spectrum of emotions and the ability to read emotions.

Bekoff believes that dogs can read human emotions as well as other dogs’ emotions. He suggests that people and dogs have forged this incredibly close emotional connection over thousands of years together. Along the way, dogs have been bred for certain traits, and “one of the traits would be the ability to read us.”

We all look to science to prove something is mathematically real and why it is real. But no matter how much research proves or disproves that dogs can read us won’t take away from the knowingness that the relationship between human and pet is a meeting of minds; it is love between two beings.

Man's best friend is still man's greatest mystery - photo credit Danilo Urbina (Flcikr)
Man’s best friend is still man’s greatest mystery – photo credit Danilo Urbina (Flcikr)

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