Ask A Scientist

How do dogs sense sadness or happiness? Also, why do they always save people? And why are they a man’s best friend?

Asked by: Kathryn Ann Black
School: Glenwood Elementary School
Grade: 3
Teacher: Ms. Wilke
Hobbies/Interests: Art, dancing, singing, reading and math
Career Interest: Artist

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Bioengineering

Research area: Turbulence, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, Modeling Ecosystems, Restoration of Wolves, Animal Rights
PhD school: University of Virgina, Aerospace Engineering, 1977
Interests/hobbies: All things Italian, especially Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Ducatis, Model trains & cars
Family: Wife, Karen, is a registerd yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; lives with 2 Alaskan Malamutes, four more in our hearts   

What great questions! It is an honor for me to write about dogs as they have stood with my loved ones and me, as they have done with countless people through thick and thin, for so many years. Perhaps the noted author Roger Caras says it best "Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole." So how do they do this? One way is that they can sense our emotions.  Both humans and dogs have the same three senses; sight, hearing and smelling, however while most humans communicate in this order --hearing, seeing, and then smelling, dogs primarily communicate by smelling, seeing and lastly hearing. Dogs also have a universal sense, which many humans do not seem to have, where they can feel the energy (emotions) of the other beings around them. Perhaps we have that sense as well but have neglected it. 

Dogs listen best to someone who is calm, but firm in their approach. They use their sense of energy to determine who should be the leader of their pack. The being with the strongest, and most stable energy is the one they look to, be it themselves or another being around them. While you can hide your emotions from another human, you cannot hide them from a dog. Dogs interpret human emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear, anger, pity and nervousness, as a weakness and they often do not listen to these emotions. Recently in fact, British researchers have claimed that dogs can read emotion on faces just like people can sense, happiness, sadness or angry feelings in others. The researchers have suggested that dogs behave like humans in reading emotions on faces.

They base their premise on the “left gaze bias” theory. When humans look at a new face, their eyes tend to move toward the left, falling on the right side of the stranger’s face first. This “left gaze bias” occurs only when humans see faces not when they observe other objects or animals. The researchers believe this bias helps them better analyze the human emotions. This same behavior has actually been found in dogs. 

There have been countless cases of dogs risking their lives to save the lives of others. Two that have particularly touched me are the cases of Katrina and Shana. Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region in 2005, but inspiring stories of heroism have helped give victims a chance to recover emotionally. That's certainly the case with Katrina; the ironically named black Labrador who saved a drowning man before rising floodwaters claimed his life. Then there is the heroic tale of Shana, a half wolf dog/half German shepherd who saved an elderly couple from a treacherous snowstorm. When Shana found Norman and Eve trapped by snow, she went to work, diligently digging out a tunnel through which she would pull the couple back to the safety of their home. 

George Graham wrote, "The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog." Throughout my life I have seen and experienced firsthand the wisdom of this quote. I thank all of my four legged furry friends -- past and present --for the count.

Last Updated: 3/1/17