Canine Intuition

According to the saying, they are a “man’s best friend.” Sometimes it does not feel that way, for instance when they launch themselves at you as you lie on the bed. Dogs are, however, wonderful companions, appearing to respond to emotions quite intuitively at times.

A dog’s ability to communicate with humans is unlike any other species. They can sense our emotions, read our facial expressions and even follow our pointing gestures. They seem to possess a special skill for knowing exactly how we are feeling. However, not much is known about the role that hearing plays in that ability. Recent research from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Bari Aldo Moro in southern Italy looked at how dogs process human emotions based only on our vocalisations.

Research has shown that dogs can combine hearing and sight to match happy and angry human faces with happy and angry vocalisations. When using only their hearing, researchers found that dogs can distinguish the positive sound of laughing from the negative sound of crying. They also concluded that negative sounds upset and arouse dogs more than positive ones. There are six basic emotions that humans can recognise from vocalisations, regardless of culture:

  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Surprise
  • Happiness.

The study aimed to investigate if dogs can recognise all six from nonverbal vocalisations alone.

Overall, it seems that dogs can determine human emotions using only their ears, at least for happiness, fear and sadness. Apparently they use the right side of their brain for processing negative emotions and the left side for positive ones. Additional data collected on heart rate and behaviour, such as tail wagging and yawning, supported these findings.

On Wednesday evening this week I was watching the Ten O’Clock News with Jess (the school dog) lying in front of the wood burner. She had been lying quietly there for about twenty minutes. A new item started on the news concerning Motor Neuron Disease. It was quite a distressing piece, with the lady talking about how it was affecting her life. As soon as she started speaking Jess jumped up and approached the television, visibly anxious. She was listening intently and seemed worried. The change in her behaviour was significant.

When the lady stopped talking and the presenter took over, Jess returned to her place in front of the fire. A minute or so later the lady spoke again and once again Jess jumped up and was showing signs of concern.

Jess arrived at Yateley Manor in September 2018. It has been interesting watching the impact she has had on the school community. Staff received more training this week from Vicky Plumer of Canine Assisted Learning, the charity which is supporting the work of Jess in school. Staff members had a wonderful afternoon learning how to maximise the use of Jess in class and one person even commented how relaxed she was after spending the time with Jess.

Jess is being used more and more in classes around school. The impact is significant, particularly in terms of wellbeing for the children. She has been trained to lie on children’s feet to calm them or place her head on the lap of a child who is reading. It is also incredible how she will enter a classroom and head straight for a child who is upset or feeling low.

I know of a dentist who has a therapy dog for patients. Apparently simply having a dog on a person’s lap can make all the treatment bearable. This week we have been talking to the children about worries and how to avoid them. Canine intervention could well offer a solution.


Robert Upton