Yes, dogs can 'catch' their owners' emotions (2023)

  • Science
  • Domesticated

A pile of recent studies show how canines pick up chemical and physiological cues from people that allow our moods to become "contagious."

ByStacey Colino

(Video) Can dogs sense emotion? - Horizon: The Secret Life of the Dog - BBC

Published October 1, 2021

11 min read

Dog-owners often feel that their pooches are good at picking up on their emotions. This isn’t a figment of their imaginations. New studies show how behavioral and chemical cues from humans can affect dogs in ways that enable them to not only discriminate between their owners’ fear, excitement, or anger, but also to “catch” these feelings from their human companions.

Just as human toddlers look to their parents for cues about how to react to the people and world around them, dogs often look to humans for similar signs. When their people project feelings of calm and confidence, dogs tend to view their surroundings as safe and secure.

“The emotional connection between humans and dogs is the essence of the relationship,” says Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology and director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. “Dogs are amazingly social beings, so they are easily infected with our warmth and joy.” But the converse is true as well, which means their owner’s stress and anxiety can also become the dog’s stress and anxiety.

(Video) Yes, dogs can pick up on their owners' emotions.

This interspecies emotional contagion, as psychologists call it, has a psychological, a physiological, and a behavioral basis. In the last few years, multiple studies have shown that the transmission of emotions depends on the release of certain hormones (such as oxytocin), body odor changes in humans, the firing of key neurons in the pooches and their people, and other physiological factors.

Recent research also shows that the extent to which people and their pups catch their owner’s emotions depends on the duration of their relationship. That’s an especially noteworthy phenomenon right now, as people and their canine companions continue to spend more time together during the pandemic.

A primitive form of empathy

There is a spectrum of emotional connection between people and their dogs, ranging from being able to detect and understand each other’s feelings to actually sharing the same emotions.

Studies have shown that dogs can catch our yawns, experience an increase in cortisol levels when they hear a baby crying—just as humans do—and respond to the emotional tone of our voices. While interacting with each other or even just looking into each other's eyes, research has found that people and their dogs experience the release of oxytocin, often called the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone"—though the hormone’s effects are more complicated than that, given that it can foster trust and generosity in some situations and envy in others.

When it comes to bonding, “oxytocin release is stimulated by eye contact or social touch such as petting, and it works both ways—from dog to human and from human to dog; it’s like a feedback loop,” explains Larry Young, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Silvio O. Conte Center for Oxytocin and Social Cognition at Emory University. “In order to have emotional contagion, dogs need to be able to recognize the emotions of their owner—that requires attention, which oxytocin facilitates. It causes the brain to focus on social cues.”

Dogs also have “affective empathy”—which is defined as the ability to understand someone else’s feelings—toward people who are important to them. Emotional contagion is a primitive form of affective empathy that reflects the ability to actually share those feelings. For example, in a 2020 study published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology,researchers examined how dogs reacted when their owner or a stranger in their home pretended to laugh or cry. The dog bestowed more attention on the person who appeared to be crying, both through visual or physical contact. And, when the stranger cried, the dogs showed higher stress responses, explains study co-author Julia Meyers-Manor, an associate professor of psychology at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin.

“All of empathy has some component of contagious emotions,” explains Meyers-Manor. “In some ways, recognizing another [creature’s] emotion is more complex cognitively speaking, whereas feeling what another animal feels is simpler.”

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When someone ends up sharing another person’s feelings, it’s often because during conversation humans naturally tend to mimic their companion’s facial expressions, posture, and body language, without being consciously aware of it. The incremental muscle movements that are involved in this phenomenon trigger the actual feeling in the brain by causing mirror neurons—brain cells that react both when a particular action, like smiling, is performed and when it is observed—to fire, conjuring up the emotion as if you were experiencing it naturally. It turns out that this rapid mimicry also occurs in dogs when they interact or play with each other, and it may be activated when pooches interact with people, too.

After all, when dogs and humans are angry, Meyers-Manor points out, their facial muscles are often tightened, their teeth may be clenched, and their body tenses up. This means that when you’re in the presence of an angry dog or when you’re enraged, each of you may unconsciously mirror the other’s facial expressions or body language and end up feeling the same way. “Because of our close connection with dogs, we have co-evolved to detect each other’s [emotional] signals in ways that are different from other species,” Meyers-Manor says.

For many years, researchers assumed that when dogs became domesticated, the possibility of emotional contagion served as a survival mechanism—if dogs were able to read and share their owner’s emotions, they would be better cared for. More recently, that thinking has shifted. A recent study inScientific Reportsfound that it's the bond and life experiences between dogs and their owners that account for the release of oxytocin during interactions. Also, a study in a 2019 issue of Frontiers in Psychologyfound that the extent to which emotional contagion occurs between humans and their canine companions increases along with the time spent sharing the same environment.

Facial expressions and body odor

Sensory factors also can influence emotional contagion between people and their canine companions. For one thing, dogs have a remarkable ability to read the facial expressions and body cues of human beings, experts say. While some research has found that dogs focus more on bodily expressions of emotion than on facial cues in both humans and other dogs, other studies have shown that dogs process human facial expressions similarly to the way people do. A study in a 2018 issue of the journal Learning & Behavior found that dogs respond to human faces that express six basic emotions— anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust—with changes in their gaze and heart rate.

“We know that dogs and humans synchronize their behavior—dogs often match the natural movements of their owners—so the fact that they synchronize their emotions isn’t surprising,” says Monique Udell, an animal behaviorist and associate professor of animal sciences at Oregon State University in Corvallis. “Dogs are watching us very closely—some of this is based on our gaze and body language but also on the sounds we make and the scents we give off.”

On the auditory front, research has found that when dogs hear expressions of distress, like crying, or positive sounds like laughing, they respond differently than they do to other vocalizations or non-human sounds. When they’re exposed to these human sounds, dogs are more likely to look at or approach their owner or the source of the sound.

When it comes to olfaction, “dogs are very sensitive to body odor—it’s how they can detect diabetes and possibly epilepsy [in people],” Wynne says. In a study in a 2018 issue of Animal Cognition,researchers set up an experiment in which Labradors and Golden Retrievers were exposed to samples of three human body odors—representing fear, happiness, and a neutral emotion: The researchers induced these particular emotions in the male participants then took odor samples from their armpits. These odors were then aerosolized through a special dispenser in a space where the dogs could move freely in the presence of their owners or strangers: When the dogs were exposed to the scent of fear, they exhibited more stressful behaviors and higher heart rates than they did in the presence of “happy” odors; the dogs were also more interested in the strangers when the happy odors were present.

(Video) How do dogs express emotions? why is my dog so emotional?#dog#kgf

When they pick up on human emotions, “a lot of times dogs use composite signals, which includes information coming in from a cocktail of their senses, including sight, hearing, olfaction, and maybe through touch if someone is nervous,” says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.

But it’s important to remember, he adds, that not all dogs are exactly alike, psychologically, physiologically, or socially. “Dogs are individuals, and you need to know who they are,” Bekoff says. “I always tell people: You’ve got to be fluent in dog.”Bekoff says that dog-owners should tune in to what their dogs are trying to tell them with their barking, other vocalizations, facial and body language.

A bidirectional effect?

In general, the range of emotions that dogs experience is probably more limited than what most humans experience. “I don’t think dogs’ emotions are very complex,” says Wynne. “They experience primal emotions including warms ones like happiness and excitement, and cold ones like fear and anxiety.” Beyond that, there are many unknowns, and one of the challenges with doing this kind of research is that dogs can’t say exactly how they’re feeling at any given moment.

It also isn’t clear whether humans can catch emotions from their dogs because studies haven’t looked at this question, though some experts believe it’s highly possible. “I certainly feel that my dog’s happiness can lift my mood,” says Wynne, author of Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You. Bekoff agrees: “I do think we pick up their emotions, too. Sometimes it’s easier to pick up their fear and stress. However, happy dogs are also easy to read if they run up to you with their tails wagging and their ears are forward, not tucked back.”

Whether they’re dog owners or not, people are highly adept at identifying both positive and negative emotions in dogs’ facial expressions, partly because shifts in facial expressions that express specific emotional states are shared across both species, research has found.

One instance that suggests stress and tension can be contagious in both directions involves leash reactivity: If your dog barks, growls, or lunges at other dogs, people, or cars while you’re walking him or her on a leash, you might feel embarrassed or stressed out, which can cause you to tense up and exacerbate your dog’s fear and anxiety. This in turn “can be a trigger for the dog doing it again,” Udell says, which can lead to an unfortunate cycle.

Still, sharing each other’s emotional ups and downs tends to be mostly beneficial because it helps us connect on a deeper level, and it has survival value, too. “If you think back to our ancestors, it was a life-or-death proposition that your dog could alert you to something so you could act quickly,” Wynne says. “The two-way street on the alarm side is mutually advantageous for both [species].”

(Video) Can dogs understand human emotions? #shortsvideo #shorts #dogfacts

Sharing a home, a life, a family, and activities contribute to the quality of the human-canine connection. Sharing each other’s feelings “helps us understand each other better, and it facilitates the bond that develops and how it’s maintained over time,” says Bekoff. “When dogs and humans share emotions, it’s like social glue.” It acts like a strong adhesive that binds us together—often for life.


Yes, dogs can 'catch' their owners' emotions? ›

In recent times, research has shown that: Dogs can recognize emotions in people's facial expressions. They're able to distinguish emotional facial expressions from neutral expressions, and they can tell happy faces from angry ones - just from photos of faces. Dogs can sniff out human emotions by smell alone.

Can dogs catch their owners emotions? ›

In recent times, research has shown that: Dogs can recognize emotions in people's facial expressions. They're able to distinguish emotional facial expressions from neutral expressions, and they can tell happy faces from angry ones - just from photos of faces. Dogs can sniff out human emotions by smell alone.

Can my dog feel my sadness? ›

Dogs are sensitive to human emotions. And it doesn't take much for them to pick up on your sadness—they can sense it in you, and tell the truth, even in other dogs. They are able to tell when people are feeling sad by reading their body language and facial expressions.

What emotions do dogs not feel? ›

Research indicates that dogs have a limited range of emotions, similar to what toddlers experience. Canines lack complex feelings such as contempt, guilt, pride, and shame, says Stanley Coren, PhD, psychologist and author of How Dogs Think. Like children, dogs see the world in a simpler way.

Do dogs have feelings or emotions? ›

The bulk of emotions that dogs experience are the five core emotions that we humans experience: fear, anger, disgust, joy and sadness. In addition, dogs can feel more nuanced emotions like excitement, distress, contentment, anxiety, shyness, anticipation, and even love.

Do dogs comfort you when you cry? ›

The same drive that inspires your dog to match an exalted state leads them to comfort you when you're sad. Amazingly, MRI studies show a parallel between human and canine results. The areas of the human brain that are active during certain emotions are actually the same in dogs.

Does my dog know I'm crying? ›

One research study conducted by University of Lincoln's School of Psychology found that dogs truly recognize emotions in humans and other dogs as a result of combining what they hear and see when a human is crying.

Do dogs know we love them? ›

Yes, your dog knows how much you love him! Dogs and humans have a very special relationship, where dogs have hijacked the human oxytocin bonding pathway normally reserved for our babies. When you stare at your dog, both your oxytocin levels go up, the same as when you pet them and play with them.

Why dogs follow you to the bathroom? ›

Dogs who follow you to the bathroom

As their owner, you are the one who meets most of their needs, including for affection, so following is a sign of this attachment. They may also be waiting for routines they enjoy such as a walk or dinner time.

Do dogs like being hugged? ›

Experts in dog behavior believe that, in general, dogs do not like being embraced. However, every dog has a unique personality. Some may dislike hugs more strongly than others, and some may actually adore them. The closest thing our furry family members do to a hug is something referred to as 'standing over'.

Can my dog get mad at me? ›

While dogs can indeed get upset by a situation, they don't get mad at someone in the same way that you do. According to HealthyPsych, anger is what psychologists refer to as a secondary emotion, which is a human response to primary emotions like fear and sadness.

Do dogs miss people? ›

It's not unusual for dogs to grieve the loss of a person they've bonded with who is no longer present. While they might not understand the full extent of human absence, dogs do understand the emotional feeling of missing someone who's no longer a part of their daily lives.

Why do dogs lick you? ›

Licking is a natural and instinctive behaviour to dogs. For them it's a way of grooming, bonding, and expressing themselves. Your dog may lick you to say they love you, to get your attention, to help soothe themselves if they're stressed, to show empathy or because you taste good to them!

Do dogs remember people? ›

Dogs also have associated memory which mean they can in fact remember people based on their experiences associated with them. Your dog may have a memory of you leaving the house and due to the strong positive association with you mean they'll celebrate when you get home.

How do dogs know their owner? ›

A new study reveals that dogs can recognize their owner by voice alone. You might already be sure your dog can recognize you by your voice, but they might not even need their vision or smell to guide them, according to a new study.

Do dogs actually get jealous? ›

Dogs appear to be one of the few species that might display jealous behaviours in ways similar to a human child showing jealousy when their mother gives affection to another child.

What do dogs think when you kiss them? ›

"Some dogs enjoy this, if taught what it means," she says. However, if the dog doesn't know what you're doing, it could cause stress or confusion. "People kissing them could potentially send mixed signals," says Shojai. Just because a person is trying to signal affection, it doesn't mean the dog will take it that way.

Do dogs have a favorite human? ›

The short answer is yes, most dogs do have favorite people. As social animals, dogs tend to be happiest and healthiest with company. And because domesticated pets depend on their people to meet virtually all their needs—food, shelter, and even access to the bathroom—these dog-human bonds are strong.

Can dogs sense a good person? ›

When someone is truly a good person with good intentions, a dog will warm up to them quickly. The dog may stand close to the nice person or follow them around. Using their strong skills in reading humans, dogs are able to sense a good person when they see one.

Why do dogs lay on you when you cry? ›

According to a new study, published in the journal Learning & Behavior, dogs want to comfort their owners when they're upset, and they will overcome barriers to do it. Previous research has shown how dogs are responsive to the sound of humans crying.

Why do dogs cry when they see you? ›

Dogs can cry tears of joy when they are reunited with their owners, a small study has found. Canines may be genuinely thrilled when they see their human companions after a long period of absence, Japanese researchers have said. The tears are believed to deepen the bond between dogs and their owners.

Do dogs know their names? ›

The short answer is yes, dogs do know their names. On average, dogs can understand 165 words. More intelligent dogs can learn 250 words. If your dog is trained to recognize their name as such, they understand that you are speaking to them specifically when you use it.

Does a dog trust you if they sleep on you? ›

Cuddles & Sleepy Snuggles 💤

Dogs choose to sleep where they feel most comfortable and at ease, so if your dog enjoys sleeping in your bed, or likes to snuggle up to you for a nap, they feel trust in you that they will be safe to do so.

Does my dog know my name? ›

Many dogs already know the names of the humans they live with; it's only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. When you think about it, we humans use each other's names a lot — saying “hello,” getting each other's attention, and calling out into the void to see if someone is around.

Why do dogs guard you when you poop? ›

Guarding – Your dog adores you and wants nothing more than to make sure you are safe. This unconditional devotion can mean that they need to be there in order to protect you from outside threats (not like there is any likelihood of someone lurking in the bathroom, but hey, anything can happen).

Why shouldn't you let your dog sleep in your bed? ›

Point: Dogs carry certain intestinal parasites, fleas, and ticks that cause human illnesses. Sleeping with a dog increases human exposure to these parasites and vector-borne diseases. Very young, very old, and immune compromised people are particularly at risk of infection.

What does it mean when your dog licks your feet? ›

Your dog licks you to show they care, to get attention, to understand you better and because they enjoy it. However, the reason they may prefer your feet could be because they're bursting with scent information that tells them a lot about you, where you've been and what you've been doing.

Do dogs like watching TV? ›

Dogs absolutely can see TV, and many seem to enjoy it. There are a number of features about television shows that dogs find attractive. Some of these are visual, such as motion, while others relate to the sounds coming from the TV.

Do dogs like being under blankets? ›

Dogs love sleeping under the covers for a variety of reasons, from instinctual to entertainment. If your furry best friend sleeps with you at night, then your bed has his scent, making him feel like he owns it. He may burrow into the blankets because it feels like a safe den.

What does it mean when a dog puts his paw on your arm? ›

When you are petting your dog, and he puts his paw on your arm or leg, it is kind of like petting you back. While most dogs can't do an actual stroking action, laying their paw on you is a sign of affection, closeness and trust This is his way of creating a special bond with you.

Can dogs sense your anger? ›

Dogs can read our facial expressions: Dogs can recognize six basic emotions – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust – and process these in similar ways as humans, with changes to heart rate and gaze.

Is it okay to yell at your dog? ›

Yelling at your dog does not work because it will just get him more stressed or it will only increase his energy level and how excited he is about the situation. Instead, your Bark Busters dog trainer can teach you how to use a calm yet firm voice to refocus your dog and to teach the desired behavior.

What do dogs think about all day? ›

Overall, dogs are complex creatures that think about a wide range of things, including social relationships, their physical environment, daily routine, physical needs, and health and well-being.

Does my dog think about me when I'm gone? ›

They do! Various studies have been done on dogs, including brain scans, to determine that dogs displayed negative emotions while their owner was away. Dogs can actually start missing their owners from the moment they part ways, and keep missing them more up until two hours.

Can dogs tell how long you are gone? ›

Time passes

Owners often wonder if dogs have a sense of time passing and if our dogs miss us when we are gone. Well, the answer to that is a definite yes. When dogs in one study were left home alone for varying periods of time, they responded with differing levels of enthusiasm on their owner's return.

Why does my dog follow me everywhere? ›

If your dog follows you everywhere then it's most likely a sign that they love and adore you. When dogs interact with someone they like, the hormone oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is often referred to as the 'love hormone' and makes you feel that warm glow when you're around someone you like.

Why do dogs like belly rubs? ›

Dogs, like humans, also release endorphins and oxytocin through methods of touch, so rubbing a dog's belly can help with bonding and affection. Ultimately, dogs like belly rubs because they feel good!

Do dog kisses mean love? ›

A dog who licks you is showing you that they love you, so it's no surprise many people call them "dog kisses". It's a natural action for dogs — a way for them to express how they feel about you. Charlotte adds: "It's important that you don't force a dog to give you 'kisses or cuddles'.

Why does my dog sniff my private area? ›

Key takeaway. Dogs sniff people's crotches because of the sweat glands, also known as apocrine glands, that are located there. Sniffing these glands gives a dog information about a person such as their age, sex, mood, and mating probability.

Do dogs remember yesterday? ›

It is very likely your dog can remember things that have happened in the past and especially events that happened recently, like where they left their ball outside yesterday. So in short, your dog can probably remember certain things from the day before!

Do dogs know your past? ›

Dogs—like great apes and humans—may possess "episodic memory" Dogs, like humans, may be able to consciously recall personal experiences and events.

Do dogs know their house? ›

Dogs are well known for their ability to backtrack to a beloved home — or person. Most animal behavior experts attribute their navigating ability largely to a hypersensitive sense of smell.

Do dogs recognize faces? ›

Dogs do pay attention to human faces, Andics, said. “They read emotions from faces and they can recognize people from the face alone, but other bodily signals seem to be similarly informative to them.”

How do dogs show they trust you? ›

Their body language is calm and relaxed in your presence

These are the most common types of relaxed body language in your dog: A slightly open mouth, with a relaxed, lolling tongue. Rolling over for a belly rub (this shows they trust you) Soft, relaxed facial expression.

Do dogs get embarrassed? ›

In a way, yes. Your dog might not be able to feel the social humiliation the way a person does, but they definitely can feel self-conscious and have subtle, embarrassed-like tendencies. Secondary emotions like embarrassment can be complicated when it comes to pets, but they definitely feel something similar to it.

Can dogs cry? ›

Dogs can also cry happy tears, according to a study published today (August 22) in Current Biology. Although the animals' eyes don't overflow, they well up when they're reunited with their owners after spending even just hours apart, the researchers found.

Do dogs get bored? ›

So, do dogs get bored? Absolutely! Doggy boredom can lead to problem behaviors, but more importantly an unhappy dog. Read on to learn the signs of boredom and tons of tips for making sure your dog is getting all the stimulation he needs.

Can my dog sense your depression? ›

On this note, research shows that dogs can sense depression, and many of them even respond lovingly to their humans in an attempt to cheer them up. In the same way that we pay attention to their behavior, dogs also pay attention to our actions to determine our “energy” that day.

Do dogs pick up on owners anxiety? ›

When a human is feeling anxious, their dog picks up the signs of anxiety but doesn't know what's caused it. This can make the dog feel less secure and more anxious too. Currently, we may be feeling a sense of anxiety about Covid-19.

Do dogs know when their owner is sad? ›

Studies show that dogs are sensitive to emotional contagion which is responding to the emotions of another without understanding what they are feeling. Your dog knows you are experiencing poor feelings even if they aren't sure how you feel, so they provide comfort.

Do dogs know when you kiss them? ›

According to Animal Behaviorists, 'dogs don't understand human kisses the same way that humans do. ' When kissing a young puppy, you may not notice any signs of recognition at all because they have yet to associate kisses with affection.

Why does my dog stare at me? ›

Just as humans stare into the eyes of someone they adore, dogs will stare at their owners to express affection. In fact, mutual staring between humans and dogs releases oxytocin, known as the love hormone. This chemical plays an important role in bonding and boosts feelings of love and trust.

Can dogs smell stress in humans? ›

Now a study has found that dogs can do something just as remarkable: sniff out stress in people. The dogs were able to smell changes in human breath and sweat, and — with high accuracy — identify chemical odors people emit when feeling stressed.

Do dogs pick a favorite person? ›

Like humans, dogs are especially impressionable as their brains develop, so puppies up to 6 months old are in their key socialization period. Like their human counterparts, dogs develop favorite people over time based on positive experiences and positive associations with that person.

Can dogs sense anger in humans? ›

Dogs can read our facial expressions: Dogs can recognize six basic emotions – anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust – and process these in similar ways as humans, with changes to heart rate and gaze.

Why do dogs put their paw on you? ›

In addition to a way to say "I love you," your dog might paw at you if it needs something like food or a potty break. Anxious dogs might also paw at you for comfort or to request some space. Other dogs may paw at you to signify they need some activity time.

Why does my dog lick me so much? ›

One of the most common reasons why dogs love to lick their owners is simply to show their affection. Since you're the one taking care of them, you're essentially their world! When dogs lick, pleasurable endorphins are released into their blood which makes them feel calm and comforted.

Do dogs know how long you are away? ›

Time passes

Owners often wonder if dogs have a sense of time passing and if our dogs miss us when we are gone. Well, the answer to that is a definite yes. When dogs in one study were left home alone for varying periods of time, they responded with differing levels of enthusiasm on their owner's return.


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