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Ripple effects of stress ruffle the family pet

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I was stressed last week. It was one of those days when I had a million things to do in about an hour, and everything was going wrong. I was running late, forgot to make my son’s lunch, was further held up by a daunting drip coming from the kitchen, and the phone was ringing off the hook.

“Calm down, Mom,” my daughter said. “You’re making Django nervous.”

She was right. Our black lab Django didn’t want to be near me and walked around with her head down. It was something I had noticed before. You know how when someone comes into the room frazzled, and you can feel their nervous energy? Well, Django does the same with me. She knows my tones, and when I’m stressed or feeling sick, she responds.

Dog owners have long known this to be true. How many times have we told our friends and family that our dogs sense when we are feeling sick or down in the dumps? Fellow pet owners understand right away, but non-pet people sometimes look at us as if we’re crazy. But now, we have scientific proof that dogs read our emotions based on our vocal cues.

A study in Hungary in which 11 dogs were placed in MRI scanners to measure brain activity while more than 200 sounds were played such as crying, whining, and happy barks, showed that dogs’ brains react to specific vocal tones. The areas in the brain that lit up proved to be the same regions that responded in human brains to the same sounds. (Dogs were not forced into the MRI machines. The dogs that chose not to go into it were not studied.)

Attila Andics of MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group in Hungary, who performed the study, says the research explains how dogs react and respond to our tones.

“This method offers a totally new way of investigating neural processing in dogs,” said Andics. “At last, we begin to understand how our best friend is looking at us and navigating in our social environment.”

It’s surely not news to those of us that love our pets; we have already known that they understand us. But it sure is affirming to have science back us up!

Danielle Sullivan, a mom of three, has worked as a writer and editor in the parenting world for more than 10 years. Sullivan also writes about pets and parenting for Disney’s Babble.com. Find Sullivan on her blogs, Just Write Mom and Some Puppy To Love.

Updated 4:56 pm, July 9, 2018
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