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Dogs can smell how humans are feeling
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Dogs can smell how humans are feeling

When you’re happy and you know it, your dog does too – joyfully adding to the moment with wags, barks and leaps of delight. Likewise, when you’re feeling down, your dog will quietly sit by your side with empathetically sad eyes to show their support.

Dog people know that their pets are tuned into their emotions – and now science has proved it. And it has a lot to do with a canine’s amazing sense of smell. A new study by a team at the University of Naples in Italy – reported in New Scientist – has found that not only can dogs interpret visual and auditory cues that tell them what humans are feeling, they can actually smell human emotions and adopt them as their own. Essentially – if you feel happy or sad – your dog does too.


By using their incredible sense of smell – scientists suggest it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s – dogs can find out lots of information. The area of the canine brain devoted to analysing scent is 40 times greater than that of the human and dogs can identify smells at least 1,000 times better than we can. 

Biagio D'Aniello, a researcher on the study, commented: “The role of the olfactory system has been largely underestimated, maybe because our own species is more focused on the visual system."

And, while it’s common knowledge that dogs have a superior sense of smell, the idea that they can scent out the emotional states of others means they have access to a whole other world of social information. It could be that this heightened sense is what makes our pets seem so intuitive.


Unlike humans, dogs smell ‘in stereo’ – that is, they smell separately with each nostril, which helps them work out exactly where interesting whiffs are coming from. 

Sweat and tears

For the study, D'Aniello and colleagues had human volunteers watch videos that elicited strong emotional responses, and then collected samples of their sweat. The sweat samples – and odours that accompany them – were then presented to a group of dogs, while researchers monitored the animals' behaviours and heart rates. Incredibly, the dogs adopted behaviours and stress responses consistent with the emotions that were experienced by the human volunteers.

The pets' reaction was most acute when they smelled sweat samples associated with human fear responses. Dogs acted fearful themselves, seeking out more reassurance from their owners while making less contact with strangers.

Emotional intelligence

This new research adds to a rich set of data demonstrating that dogs have a high level of emotional intelligence, especially when it comes to understanding their human companions. Scientists believe that this highly developed canine intuition is most likely due to the domestication of dogs over thousands of years.


Dogs have around 220 million olfactory receptors in their nose, while humans have only a measly 5 million.

So, while dogs may have been our close companions for around 30,000 years, it seems that science has only uncovered the tip of the iceberg when it comes to really understanding what makes the canine-human relationship so special. What on earth will they discover next?

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Sources: newscientist.com, mnn.com

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