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Can dogs recognize human emotions? New research says they can

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Most dog owners are firm believers in the heartwarming idea that their dog is smart enough to understand their emotions. Oftentimes, outsiders view these thoughts as a whole lot of bark, with little evidence to back up this alleged intelligence. A study published on February 20th, however, has proven a canine's ability to read and understand human emotions and vocal tone, tossing skeptics in the doghouse for good.

From the very beginnings of dog-human companionship, owners have harnessed a reputation for up-playing their dog’s mental capabilities, which has only led to a deeper bond between the co-existing mammals: a unique bond unseen between any other species. The study, led by Attila Andics from the MTA-ELTE Comparative Research Group, used MRI machines to scan the brains of 11 dogs. Andics and her crew had to first train six golden retrievers and five border collies to lie still in the machines.

In the first study of its kind, researchers were able to compare the brain functions of humans with non-primate animals, showing how dogs are innately sensitive to the various sounds of emotion. The researchers ran a neuroimaging experiment on both dogs and humans to capture their brain activity while listening to about 200 dog and human sounds.

The results were remarkable in that both dog and human response activity occurred in similar locations in the brain. The primary auditory cortex within the brain also responded more to happy sounds than unhappy in both species. According to Andics, dogs “...use similar brain mechanisms to process social information. This may support the successfulness of vocal communication between the two species.”

The findings exemplify how the bond between human and canine has been able to evolve for hundreds of thousands of years. Humans and dogs offer one another a stable, gratuitous support system.

Understanding the way humans feel and responding attentively to these emotions are not even the most impressive abilities researchers have been able to reveal. While a human nose can sense anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 smells, a dogs’ trusty muzzle can grasp 30,000 to 100,000. A dog’s olfactory cortex is actually 100 million times more sensitive than its human counterpart.

This past summer, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center made hefty strides in training canines to detect ovarian cancer using nothing else but their inherently gifted nose. In this specialty, dogs are taught to distinguish between volatile organic compounds (VOC), odorants present in the early stages of ovarian cancer.

The revelations of the evolved ability of dogs and humans to co-exist and help one another survive are only just beginning. As technology continues to advance, so will humans’ ability to dive deeper into how dogs became and continue to be ‘man’s best friend’.

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