One of my favorite games is to watch dogs play with a friend, or a new dog, and create my own storyline for the conversation they’re having. “Oh, Ziggy and Panda don’t like each other,” or “Aw, Quigley and Pimm and Hudson are in such a love triangle right now” or “Andi’s gonna let Oona know who’s boss!”
As it turns out, your dogs really are having a conversation when they play. And researchers in Italy have confirmed that dogs possess one of the more unique emotional gifts of mankind and certain primates: emotional contagion.
Ever notice how when someone smiles, you instinctively smile in return? And not only do you mimic their face, but you actually start feeling happier. As a human, you’re literally susceptible to the emotions of others. It’s called “emotional contagion,” and it turns you into a mirror for the feelings of your friends.
Researchers from the study in Italy noticed that dogs mimic each other while they play. The better they know each other, the more quickly they snap into mirroring and mimicking each other’s behavior. The stronger the social bond between the dogs, the more naturally they slide into the conversational rhythm of matching and empathy.
Our dogs’ ability to mirror facial expressions, and understand what the feelings on our face mean, goes even further. In a study at the universities of Lincoln and Sao Paulo, researchers confirmed that dogs can combine different senses to understand emotions, both in dogs and in people.
In the experiment, the dogs were able to match the expression on a human’s face, either happy or angry, with a vocal recording of a human command in either a happy or angry tone. Their success rate matching dog expressions & tones was even better. Dogs thus join humans as the only animals that have demonstrated this level of emotional intelligence.
So when you feel yourself in a bad mood and you see your sweet pup slinking around the house because she’s sad too, and you find yourself thinking, “Aw, she understands…” Well, it’s true. She does. You don’t even need to say a word.