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Ask A Vet: How Does My Dog Sense My Emotions?

Our dogs seem to know how we are feeling and to comfort us accordingly. Have you wondered how your canine buddy truly knows that you need him? How does he know how you feel?

It Just Makes Scents

Studies have shown that dogs are able to actually sniff emotions with their noses. The funny thing is that dogs consistently use the left nostril to perceive human odors collected during fearful situations (emotion-eliciting movies) and physical stress, suggesting the prevalent activation of the left hemisphere. The left side in a human brain seems to relate to logical thinking and reasoning, but for dogs, maybe it is most logical to let you sense the stress for him and he can just follow your lead. 1 It is truly fascinating that dogs can actually smell our emotions!

Written All Over Your Face

Dogs are tuned into facial and body language cues. Studies show that wolves and other canine species use facial features to communicate.² Our dogs are evolved from wild canines that live in pack hierarchies, and being able to read the body cues of the other members is a survival skill. If one of the dogs senses danger, it pays for the other dogs to react instantly from his cues rather than put themselves in harm’s way to confirm the danger on their own. Better to be safe than sorry in the animal world! When you are upset, your own facial cues will indicate to your dog because he is always watching you closely and is very tuned in to you.

The Sound and the Fury

Your dog has learned to associate your stressed tones with action on your part. For example, if she damages something that is precious to you, you will exclaim or seem unhappy. You might even speak harshly to her. She knows what tension and stress are and how they manifest in your voice. The same story applies here. It is a survival instinct for her to respond to support the pack or family. You are all in this world together and she knows that you depend on each other for help and support.

Dogs are built to live in family groups. They know that they need each other to survive and thrive. They instinctively love and care for us as family members. Aren’t we lucky that we have managed to insert ourselves into their evolution the way we have?  While nature was providing dogs a method to survive, we got our best friends… just naturally.

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  1. The dog nose “KNOWS” fear: Asymmetric nostril use during sniffing at canine and human emotional stimuli.  Behav Brain Res. 2016 Feb 10;304:34-41. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2016.02.011. [Epub ahead of print] Siniscalchi M, d’Ingeo S, Quaranta A.
  2. PLoS One. 2014 Jun 11;9(2):e98217. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0098217. e Collection 2014.A comparison of facial color pattern and gazing behavior in canid species suggests gaze communication in gray wolves (Canis lupus). Ueda S, Kumagai G, Otaki Y, Yamaguchi S, Kohshima S.


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Written by Dr. Kathryn Primm
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