Emotional Intelligence and Dog Training – What Dogs Can Teach Us

The benefits of interacting with animals for mental and physical health were first noted in 1792. Since the 1960’s, animals have more frequently been used to help alleviate symptoms from a variety of conditions. Even short encounters with animals have shown to provide a relief from pain, anxiety and depression, and increase the production of a variety of hormones associated with relaxation and immune system function. Recently, two studies conducted at the Psychology department of the University of Vienna found that interactions with dogs could teach people to better recognise emotions in themselves and other humans.

During the first study, the participants, both adults and children got to interact with a therapy dog for one hour every week for three months. After the animal assisted therapy, the participants were better at recognising human emotions. In the second study, the participants, children aged 5 to 7, were better at regulating their own emotions, recognising emotions in others, and were more empathetic.

Most humans, even with no or little experience of dogs, have shown to be able to differentiate between emotions in dogs’ vocalizations and facial expressions. It has not yet been established whether this understanding is due to our long cohabitation or to the facial similarities of some mammals. According to the above studies, there seems to be a kind of cross-species generalization between humans and dogs. As we get better at reading dogs’ signals and body language, we may become better at recognizing emotions in other people.

In the current study, I wanted to explore whether dog owners and dog trainers were better at recognising emotions in humans than a general sample of the population. To test this, I used an Emotional Intelligence scale. Emotional Intelligence (EI) can be divided into four sub-categories as the abilities to recognise, regulate, use, and understand emotions. Recognizing emotions in others and the ability to express emotions is necessary for communication and social interactions. For example, misunderstanding the emotion of another human, such as anger or sadness, could cause you to respond inappropriately. Being able to regulate one’s own emotions is crucial for psychological well-being. Ignoring negative emotions, or not being able to replace them with positive emotions, can be detrimental to physical health.

Dog owners had higher EI than the group from the general population, which indicates that any interactions with dogs may increase EI. Dog trainers and dog walkers had higher EI than both dog owners and the general population sample, even when alternative explanations such as age and gender were tested for. To explore what type of interactions may increase EI, the dog trainer and walker group was divided into four subgroups: dog walkers, participants who offered both dog walking and training, dog trainers who focused on behaviour problems, and dog trainers who focused on training for competitions. Between these groups, dog trainers who focused on behaviour problems had the highest EI.

Some previous research has discussed the effect of the owner’s stress on dog behaviour problems. For example, in the presence of a known trigger, the owner may start breathing faster, putting tension on the leash, and raising his or her voice, which can intensify the dog’s behaviour. There is also evidence that dogs are sensitive to human emotional states. Some dogs are so in tune with their owner that their bodies have synchronized release of stress hormones. If a member of the family is stressed, dogs may be affected through physical symptoms such as diarrhoea, gastric upset or epileptic seizures. Based on this, some have argued that it is necessary for veterinary behaviourists to help both the dog and the owner to replace their fear or frustration with a more positive emotion. If owners to some extent need to become better at recognizing and regulating their own emotions when helping their dog through its behaviour problems, it is possible that dog trainers who work with dogs with behaviour problem need similar skills.

However, due to the nature of the analysis in our study, the direction of the relationship between EI and dog behaviour trainers cannot be known. This means that it is possible that trainers with high EI tend to focus on behaviour problems, rather than the training causing the increased EI. Future studies could look at the EI of dog owners before and after going through different behaviour modification programs with their dogs. For these studies we will need dog trainers who are willing to ask their clients to fill in our survey before and after a number of training sessions. If you are a dog trainer who would be interested in this, please contact Linnea Lyckberg (l.lyckberg@gmail.com) for more information!

The results of the current study may help pin point what type of interactions with dogs might increase EI. This could help us set up courses for dog owners, or programs to be used during Animal Assisted therapy, which could help people become better at recognising, regulating, using, and understanding emotions, and thereby improving their physical and psychological well-being.


Key References:

Cain, A.O. (1983). A study of pets in the family. In: Katcher, A.H., Beck, A.M. (Eds.), Campo, R. A., Uchino, B. N., Holt-Lunstad, J., Vaughn, A., Reblin, M., & Smith, T. W. (2009). The assessment of positivity and negativity in social support networks: The Social Relationships Index. Journal of Community Psychology, 37, 471-486.

Canino, J., Shaw, J., & Beck, A. M. (2007). A look at the role of marriage and family therapy skills within the context of animal behavior therapy. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2, 15-22.

Jones, A.C., & Josephs, R.A. (2006). Interspecies hormonal interactions between man and the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Hormones and Behaviour, 50, 393-400.

Morisaki, A., Takaoka, A., & Fujita, K. (2009). Are dogs sensitive to the emotional state of humans? Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4(49).

O’Farrell, V. (1995). The effect of owner attitudes on behavior. In: Serpell, J.A. (Ed.), The domestic dog: Its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 153–160.

Stetina, B. U., Turner, K., Burger, E., Glenk, L. M., McElheney, J. C., Handlos, U., & Kothgassner, O. D. (2011). Learning emotion recognition from canines? Two for the road. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 6, 108-114.

Schirmer, A., Shan Seow, C., Penney, T. B. (2013). Humans process dog and human facial affect in similar ways. PLOS One, 8(9).

Turner, K., Stetina, B., Burger, E., Lederman Maman, T., Handlos, U., & Kryspin-Exner, I. (2009). Enhancing emotion regulation and recognition among first graders through animal-assisted group training. Journal of Veterinary Behaviour, 4, 93-94.


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