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Between the Whines: Humans Read Emotion Cues in Doggy Sounds

Most dog owners can sense the difference between Fido's yip of joy and howl of discontent. Now, scientists find people use the same general rules to recognize doggy emotions as they do for fellow humans.

By comparing how people perceive human and dog vocalizations, researchers found that people linked positive or negative emotions with the length of a vocalization, and the emotional intensity with a sound's pitch.

Emotions reflect a person's mental state, and the evolutionary roots of emotions go way back. Emotional vocalizations are quite similar across different species, and may carry the same information about an animal's inner state as about a human's. [Top 10 Things that Make Humans Special]

"We are curious how dogs communicate their inner state, and in what extent are humans able to understand this," said study team member Tamás Faragó, who studies animal behavior at Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary.

Previous research found that low-pitched, quickly repeated dog barks are perceived by humans as being higher in aggression, whereas slower, high-pitched barks are seen as more positive. However, barking is a result of domestication, so general rules don't apply to it.

Faragó and his colleagues decided to see whether humans interpret the calls of dogs and other humans in similar ways. They recruited volunteers, 33 women and six men with an average age of 31, and gave them an online survey that included hearing sounds from humans and dogs, such as a baby's laugh or a puppy's whine. The participants had to rate each call on a scale from negative to positive emotion, and from low to high emotional intensity.

The shorter calls, or sounds, were rated as more positive than longer calls, and higher-pitched calls were rated as more intense than lower-pitched ones. The findings, detailed online Jan. 8 in the journal Biology Letters, suggest that humans do indeed use similar characteristics to sense emotion in dogs as they do in other humans.

— Tanya Lewis, LiveScience.com

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