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Dogs Smell Human Emotions

by Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD

Dogs and humans have been companions for possibly the last 100,000 years, which is a long time for BFFs. Although dogs and humans are two different species, we have developed a highly beneficial, co-evolutionary relationship. The success of our relationship with our canine companions depends on their ability to communicate and cooperate with us.

A recent study* reports that “dogs recognize dog and human emotions” by using the senses of hearing and vision. Why hearing and vision? Because these are the two senses humans use. So, naturally, human psychologists assume that these are the two senses dogs use. This is a prime example of thinking from the Human’s Perspective.

However, to really understand how dogs think, consider the dog’s perspective. Dogs are experts at reading human emotions, but NOT through vision and hearing. The reported conclusions of this study may sound plausible from the Human’s Perspective, but not practical from the Dog’s Perspective. Humans want to believe that dogs look at us, just like we look at them. We want to believe that dogs interpret sounds and sights just like humans. But they don’t.

First, dogs work primarily from their extraordinary sense of smell, aka olfaction. Humans have very little concept of communication through olfaction, but it is a dog’s primary, go-to sense. This difference CANNOT be ignored. The part of the dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is approximately 40 times greater than humans.  There is NO comparison! Dogs can read human emotions, but they do it through olfaction, not sights and sounds. If dogs can smell drugs, bombs, cancer and someone about to have a seizure, dogs can smell emotions. Dogs smell fear. Why do you think you should never act afraid near an animal?Dogs work primarily from their sense of smell. Click To Tweet

Second, the study showed images on a screen/monitor that has a flicker rate appropriate for human vision (60 Hz), but NOT appropriate for dog’s vision (70-80 Hz). It is impossible, impractical and inappropriate to assume dogs view their world just like humans, through vision and hearing. But they don’t “see” the world as we do. They smell it. They don’t view the world. They sniff it.

When humans start recognizing we need to better understand olfactory communication, maybe then we can start understanding how dogs perceive and communicate with their world. We need to understand dogs from The Dog’s Perspective and realize that dogs do not experience the world as we do. Dogs perceive their world through the Dog’s Perspective.

*Albuquerque, N, Guo, K et. al. 2016. Dogs recognize Dog and human emotions. Biology Letters 12(1): 12 20150883

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is a trainer, consultant and coach for dogs and their human companions through Lucky Dog Training, Asheville. She has over 30 years of training experience. The Dog’s Perspective is a training philosophy based on how dogs think. Kathryn is an evolutionary biologist and teaches higher education biology courses.

photo credit: Dog Sniffing via photopin (license)



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