Dogs CAN understand human emotion: Canine brain reacts to vocal sounds same way as people

The brains of dogs and humans were found to process emotional sounds in the same way as humans, in the first study to examine a canine brain in such detail

Many dog owners will tell you their pet can pick up on when they are happy or sad, and now, scientists have proved that they may well be right.

The new research found that the brain of a dog reacts in the same way as the human brain when played sounds including laughing and crying.

“Dogs and humans use similar brain mechanisms to process social information and this is the first step to understanding what makes vocal communications betweens dogs and humans so successful,” said Attila Andics, lead author of the research.

11 dogs were carefully trained to lie still in an fMRI scan at the Hungarian Academy of Science's Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest for the study.

It wasn’t an easy process and took 12 training classes, along with seven sessions in the scanner room. In the end though the dogs were happy to take part, said Dr Marta Gasci.

“The dogs training was based on positive reinforcement techniques,” she said. “Lots of praise while they were lying on the scanner, and of course lots of food rewards."

The team also got the lesser trained dogs to watch the experienced dogs on the scanner so they could see all the rewards and attention the other was getting. “It made them want to get on the scanner bed, participate in the task,” said Dr Gasci.

22 human volunteers took part in the research, the first ever comparative neuroimaging study of a nonprimate and a primate species.

Each of the people and dogs were played the same 200 different noises including non-word human sounds, barking, cars and whistles.

It was found that the areas of the brain activated by the various sounds was strikingly similar in dogs and humans. Dogs did however react much more strongly to dog sounds than the human sounds. 

“Dogs have dedicated voice areas in their brain, just as people do,” said Dr Andics. “The voice area of the dog brain responds more strongly to dog sounds, the human more strongly to human sounds.

“The voice areas are located vary similarly in the dog and human brain, this means these areas evolved at least 100 million years ago - the age of the last common ancestor of humans and dogs.”

Video courtesy of the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary

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