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Emotional contagion in animals

Published on 20th June 2015

Recent studies suggest that our emotions can transfer to animals and emotions can also be contagious. This is known as emotional contagion which essentially means; ‘the spreading of all forms of emotion from one person (or animal) to another’, (Hanne Grisse, 2015). One such study focused on the ’emotional contagion’ in dogs, as measured by change in cognitive task performance. The 2014 study, by Zsófia Sümegi, Katalin Oláh, József Topál, found that dogs are able to pick up on human emotions and they exhibited the capacity to empathise with humans.

Human emotions like happiness can be said to transfer to animals.

Human emotions like happiness are said to be transferred to animals.

Over the years I’ve been working with dogs I’ve seen many cases where an owners emotions could be said to transfer to their pets; anxious dogs with anxious owners and bouncy happy dogs with happy enthusiastic owners. In cases of dog on dog fear aggression the dogs are said to pick up on the owners anxiety/stress when approaching another dog. Anxiety can be detected by a change in the owners breathing or facial expressions and this can also result in the tightening on the lead or change in body posture; all detected by the dog. Other examples of emotions transferring I experienced was with my pet Degu, when I was feeling ill (and very emotional) ‘Knuckles’ would snuggle up to me more and seemed to be able to empathise with me. Given the above examples of emotional contagion it can help and hinder our training interactions with our dogs.

Being very science minded and after recently attending the Science Festival’s talk on this very subject I thought it would be interesting to share. It’s exciting times ahead for the pet care and training industry – we are beginning to get more insights into the world of animal behaviour and the more research we can do the more knowledge we have to help treat behavioural issues.

Bibliography

Emotional contagion in dogs as measured by change in cognitive task performance
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159114002354
Science Direct, 2014

Emotional contagion in dogs
http://www.doglistener.tv/2015/02/emotional-contagion-in-dogs/
Hanne Grisse, 2015