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What Happens When You Smile at Your Dog By Tina L. Smith

Lori Davidson | 17 August, 2021

            What Happens When You Smile at Your Dog by Tina L. Smith guest share to petperennials.com

Research reveals what dogs do and don’t understand

Reposted from Medium.com - All credits to Tina L. Smith

Researching Rover

Because dogs don’t have human language capability, we can’t ask them what they think. So scientists have used creative methods to explore canine emotions and responses to humans.

Some researchers use photos of people with various expressions to measure their responses. Some observe behavior of dogs and humans interacting or measure levels of brain chemistry. And some even use MRI to measure brain response to various stimuli.

Do dogs have feelings?

Let’s start with the basics. Dog lovers would argue that dogs express feelings and emotions regularly. But those could easily be projections of our own emotions, and we need science to weigh in objectively. And science is notoriously skeptical.

“Scientists find it hard to accept the idea that animals have feelings,” said Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, in a 2017 National Geographic interview, in which he discusses his research on animal emotions and feelings.

“Most people who live with dogs understand this intuitively,” he continues. To prove or disprove this hypothesis, experiments were conducted to take human emotional projection out of the equation.

As part of his work, Dr. Bern mapped dogs’ brains as they responded to different stimuli. Using fMRI imaging technology to observe brain activity, he and colleagues discovered reward neural pathways of dogs’ brains. “Everything we started doing to elicit positive emotions showed that dogs had corresponding parts of their brains to humans.”

Dog brains…they’re just like ours! (Sort of.)

Do they recognize smiles?

In 2011, a group of researchers showed a series of photographs: some of their owners smiling and with a blank expression and some of strangers smiling with a blank expression. Dogs had an opportunity to “choose” photos, and they consistently chose the smiling photos. Interestingly enough, there was no real difference in their selections, whether the photos were of their owner or a stranger.

The study showed that dogs not only recognize and respond favorably to their owners’ smiling face but also the smiling faces of strangers. They have the ability to detect and discern smiles on people they know and don’t know.

And while they may not know the exact meaning of a smile, they respond favorably in acknowledgment of a positive emotion.

Another recent study shows that dogs can understand the emotions behind an expression on a human face. They could differentiate between positive and negative emotions handily.

Further, they discovered that if a dog turns its head to the left, it could be picking up that someone is angry, fearful, or happy. If there is a look of surprise on a person’s face, dogs tend to turn their head to the right.

Do they feel empathy?

The same study demonstrates that dogs often feel empathy for people. For example, dogs' heart rates go up when they see someone who has the expression that researchers describe as “having a bad day.” The dogs showed greater response and cardiac activity when they saw photographs in which people showed emotional states such as anger, fear, and great happiness.

Maybe you’ve had a dog that provided comfort during times of distress by sitting close or looking dolefully at you in empathy. I certainly have. It’s nice to know that it was not an imagined experience.

Researchers suggest that dogs associate emotional speech or vocalizations of humans with the facial expressions that accompany those outbursts. That is, they understand that a distressed face accompanied by shouting is a negative emotional state. Likewise, they hear an effusive “Who’s mama’s good boy?” delivered with smiles and recognize that smiles are positive.

This ability is fairly advanced, showing that dogs process emotional expressions with multiple senses.

Do they really love us?

One of the more fascinating things researchers have discovered is that dogs do, indeed, like or love us. How do they know? By offering dogs food and praise from humans, researchers demonstrated that brain areas show equal or greater activation when dogs are expecting verbal praise compared to when they are expecting a hot dog.

So they like us at least as much as hot dogs…and, knowing how much our hounds love food, I’ll take that as a huge compliment.

In addition, oxytocin — a hormone associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building — is released when dogs lock eyes with a human. Just think of it: when you gaze into your dog’s eyes, you make her feel love, trust, and empathy. That’s a pretty powerful effect, and these findings validate what many of us have felt intuitively.

In the words of Sally Fields, “You like me! You really like me!”

Smile, and your dog smiles with you

Smiling, for people, is a reflexive act when we feel happiness. And when we see others smiling, we find it hard to resist joining in with smiles of our own. I work with my partner in his photography studio and frequently find myself grinning like an idiot as I watch people smile for their photos. I can’t help it. It’s almost an involuntary response.

Dogs, too, respond to human smiles with a complex neurological process.

But, in short, when you smile at your dog, he recognizes your emotion, empathizes with your happiness, and responds to you with expressions of happiness. It’s an amazing phenomenon and one of the reasons dog owners feel so connected to their canines.

If you haven’t tried it already, look deeply into your pup’s eyes and grin widely. Watch to see what happens. I’m betting you’ll be greeted by wags or a toothy dog smile in return.

Isn’t it nice to know that our smiles — and happiness — are truly contagious to another species?

What about cats? What happens when you smile at them? Well, you can read about that here:


© Tina L. Smith, 2021

Writer, humorist, animal lover, lifelong language geek (er, I proofread for fun). I write on diverse topics that catch my fancy. Everything but haiku(tm). [she]

I was astounded when I finally realized something amazing: When I smile at my dogs — without saying a word — they relax visibly and wag their tails. It took me longer than I care to admit to notice this fascinating phenomenon. Years, in fact. But now that I know, I can’t stop beaming at them. It can be when I’m face-to-face with them or through a window when they’re outside. They recognize a smile and respond with vigorous tail wags.

Both of my dogs are golden retrievers, which are notoriously happy and emotionally responsive to people. I wondered, is this just “a golden thing,” or is it a ubiquitous canine response to humans? To what degree do dogs read and respond to human facial cues and emotions?

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