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Your Happy Pet: How your dog knows what you're feeling

Original Publication Date: March 10, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

When you hear a friend call your name, you immediately picture the person and can even tell if his or her mood is happy, sad or distressed.

Similarly, people can distinguish between lonely, angry and happy barks of dogs.

Scientists know there is a special part of the human brain, the "voice area," that allows us to process this information.

I have long believed that dogs have the same ability to read our feelings. When I was 5 years old, I got my first dog, a Chihuahua named Snooks. We were constant companions, and it was clear to me that she knew whether my spirits were high or low. She understood my words when I exuded joy over receiving a birthday gift or bemoaned the fact that my older brother had broken my balloon.

Depending on my feelings, her demeanor and attitude changed to reflect my mood.

Do you believe your pet can tell how you are feeling? Recently, Attila Andics, a neuroscientist, and his research team at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest set out to determine how the canine brain processes different types of sounds to determine if your pet knows what you are feeling.

Having been a dog person and a research scientist for years, I found their protocol remarkable. They compared magnetic resonance imaging scans of humans and dogs as they listened to a series of almost 200 dog and human sounds ranging from whines and cries to playful barks and laughs.

Finding 22 human volunteers to have an MRI scan may not have been too difficult. Training 11 dogs with headphones fitted to their ears to lie quietly in an MRI and listen to a series of sounds seems an astonishing feat to me. It probably helped that the dog owners were present to give treats and pets.

Both humans and dogs were awake during the scans.

The MRIs revealed that dogs have a voice area in a location similar to the one in humans. There were striking similarities in how dog and human brains process sounds full of emotions.

Happy sounds like a baby's giggle made the primary auditory cortex of both humans and dogs light up more than unhappy sounds like a man's harsh cough.

The researchers believe that the similar way in which humans and dogs process sounds helps explain why vocal communication between the two species is so successful.

Dogs react to the way we say something rather than to what we say. So you shouldn't be surprised the next time your voice sounds blue and your dog nuzzles and snuggles with you or you utter happy words and he wags his tail. He simply knows how you are feeling and wants to share your mood.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at