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Dogs understand emotional change based on vocal tone

Scientific investigations have supported the notion that dogs can understand the difference in human vocal tones and respond accordingly. One experiment found that dogs took food more quickly from a person saying “leave it” in a happy tone when compared to commanding the dog to leave the food in an angry tone. A second experiment recorded the number of times dogs cocked their heads when hearing baby laughter or crying. They found that the infant crying induced more head cocking behavior, which indicates they could tell the difference between the two vocalizations and were curious about it. These findings suggest that dogs understand that you want them to leave something partly because your vocalizations are angrier, and they can also likely notice vocal changes when you are crying. Your dog might be able to use cues in your vocalizations to understand how best to interact with you.


Do you ever wonder if your dog understands what you’re saying? Or when you’re upset? Research suggests they just might. 30 dogs were recruited to participate in an experiment looking at behaviors related to differing vocal emotional expressions. The first study included commanding dogs to “leave” a piece of food in either joyful, angry or disgusted tones. They found that dogs took the food significantly faster when they were told to “leave it” in a happy voice. This research suggests that tone of voice likely has a large role in word-based command learning, specifically for commands like “leave it” or “drop it”.

The same dogs participated in a second experiment examining dog behavior in response to laughter or crying. The dogs were on a leash and watched a woman walk behind a screen. Infant crying or laughter was then played from behind the screen. When the dogs heard crying, they cocked their heads more often than when they heard laughter. They could understand the difference between the emotional vocalizations and seemed more curious and interested when they thought the person was upset or crying.

These studies suggest that dogs behave differently when presented with the same situation, but with different emotional vocalizations. If your dog responds differently when you are happy, excited, sad, or even angry, this is completely normal, and can even be beneficial to you! If you are sad and your pup knows it, they might try to comfort you more. But also, if you’re super excited to go on your evening walk – you can share that joy with your dog.


Where to find the article: Ruffman T., & Morris-Trainor Z. (2011) Do dogs understand human emotional expressions? Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 97–98. doi:10.1016/j.jveb. 2010.08.009 

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