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Dog lovers seldom have any doubt about the smarts and sensitivity of their pets and many have claimed that their dogs can pick up on what they think and feel. But the world of science has taken a more sceptical view. Anthropomorphism, defined as when humans project their own feelings onto animals, so while you might think Rashers the dog is happy to see you, it might just be that you’re happy to see Rashers.

It could be argued that this is more to do with the natural scepticism that comes with scientific thinking rather than any real lived experience. So, while a dog owner can be pretty sure Rashers is happy when he barks, jumps up and down and attempts to lick their face, in science nothing can be said to be true till it’s proven to be true.

Now recent research shows that animal lovers were right all along. Not only can dogs recognize who we are, they can even spot what type of a mood we are in.

In a test carried out by the University of Helsinki, a group of dogs were shown two sets of images on a computer screen. One set showed the faces of humans and of dogs they were familiar with (eg their owners or dogs from the same family) and by comparison the other showed the faces of dogs and people they had never met before.

Speaking about the test, lead researcher Professor Outi Vaino said “Dogs were trained to lie still during the image presentation and to perform the task independently. Dogs seemed to experience the task as rewarding, because they were very eager to participate”

The result found that the test subjects spent longer gazing at the familiar faces then at the faces of dogs and people they had never met before.

The upshot of this is that dogs can recognize faces. Previously, it was thought that only humans and our higher primate cousins had this ability. It was thought a dog might be able to recognize people via a superior sense of smell and hearing and not through their eyesight, which is a great deal weaker than humans.

So now that we can be confident that dogs recognize who we are, the question arises, can they see how we feel?

In a battery of tests carried out at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, scientists trained two groups of dogs. One group was trained to touch the images of happy faces and the other to do likewise with angry images. The final result found that the happy face group mastered their task considerable faster than their fellow angry face dogs.

According to study, Director Ludwig Huber stated “It seems that dogs dislike approaching angry faces. Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before.”

The author of the study Corsin Muller goes on to explain “We believe that dogs draw on their memory during this exercise. They recognize a facial expression, which they have already stored, we suspect that dogs that have no experience with people would perform worse or could not solve the task at all.”

This is the first, hard evidence that a non human animal can pick up on changes in the emotional expressions in another species. It seems that man’s relationship with his best friend runs two ways. Not only do we really know our dog’s, but our dogs really know us.

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