It turns out, they are much more in tune with us than we think.
According to the study "Nasal Oxytocin Treatment Biases Dogs’ Visual Attention and Emotional Response toward Positive Human Facial Expressions", the chemical oxytocin, a hormone present in social interaction between humans, can influence a dog's behavior and how they see the world around them. The study, which was undertaken by researchers in the University of Helsinki's Canine Mind research project, shows that dogs under oxytocin are more interested in smiling human faces than the angry ones. This means that dogs will focus more on people who look like they're smiling and pay less attention to people who appear to be angry.
For the research, 43 dogs were shown pictures of smiling and angry faces in a computer screen. The dogs were tested twice: one under the influence of oxytocin, which was administered to them via a nasal spray during the test, and once without oxytocin. Researchers then measured the dogs using their gaze on the images and their pupil size using a non-contact eye-tracking device. This method allows researchers to probe the dog's mind, as emotions and attentiveness are mirrored in a dog's gaze and pupil size.
"We were among the first researchers in the world to use pupil measurements in the evaluation of dogs’ emotional states," Professor Outi Vainio, who led the seven-man research group, said. "This method had previously only been used on humans and apes."
Dogs usually evaluate threat by focusing on remarkable aspects of each situation. This allows them to recognize and respond to any threat quickly for survival. Results based on dogs without oxytocin show that their pupils were the largest when they looked at the images that show angry faces -- an indication that the faces evoked the most reaction for the dogs. For dogs under oxytocin, however, images of smiling faces enhanced their emotional state more than the angry ones. This means that dogs under the influence of oxytocin view smileys in a more pronounced manner and responds to in a more positive manner. Moreover, the chemical inhibits response to threatening situations generated by angry faces as opposed to dogs without oxytocin.
The study concludes that additional studies are required to examine if this will prove to be effective for other species, as domestic dogs were the main participants of the research. Still, the results prove the effects of communication between dogs and humans, as well as developing relations between them.
A previous study conducted by the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna had already shown that dogs are capable of recognizing different states of human emotion. In the experiment, dogs were able to determine happy and angry faces when presented side by side. The study also stated that dogs are able to be trained to approach happy faces faster than angry faces.
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