Canine Mimicry Exists: Your Dog Can Catch Your Emotions

Canine mimicry does exist and dogs do mirror emotion, says a new report coming out of Italy. The study suggests that not only do dogs almost instantly mirror each others’ expressions, but they can mimic humans, as well.

Elisabetta Palagi, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Pisa in Italy and lead researcher in the study, spoke about canine mimicry, reported Smithsonian.

“It’s an extremely important phenomenon, because through this mimicry you can feel the same emotion as the other person.”

When an individual almost instantly mirrors the same emotional state as another individual, it is called emotional contagion. Humans have always done this, and now it seems that dogs can do it too, says News Discovery.

According to Dog Channel, the study research team thinks that the canines may be exhibiting the most basic form of empathy, which gives them the ability to pick up on emotion in other dogs through body movements and facial expressions.

BBC News reports that Dr. Elisabetta Palagi spoke about the phenomenon.

“We demonstrated that rapid mimicry is present in dogs and it is an involuntary, automatic and split-second mirroring of other dogs. A dog while playing with another dog can read their motivation and the emotional state of the other dog by mimicking the same expression and body movement of the other dog, This phenomenon is present also in humans and in other primate species.”

The research team — Elisabetta Palagi, Velia Nicrotra and Giada Cordoni — collected data in a public dog park in Sicily, Italy. They obtained permission from the dogs’ owners, and asked about the relationship between the canines, categorizing them as friends who played at least three times a week, acquaintances who played twice a month or strangers, who had never been together previously. The researches then videotaped 49 dogs at play, obtaining 50 hours of video in about 200 different play sessions.

A play session was defined as when one dog “directed a playful pattern” toward another dog, who responded with another playful pattern, reports Royal Society Publishing. When one of the dogs moved away, the dogs quit playing or a third dog interfered, the session was deemed ended.

Typical play patterns were identified as the “relaxed open-mouth,” or canine grin, and the “play bow,” which is a stance that has the dog’s front legs at an angle, the back legs straight and a wagging tail.

The researchers then analyzed the 50 hours of videos, frame by frame, discovering that the dogs could mimic each others’ movements and facial expressions within a second.

The closer the relationship was between the dogs, the stronger and faster the mimicry. Also, the more mimicry, the longer the play session.

“Everybody is infected by others’ smiles and laughter if the trigger is a friend,” said Palagi.

The authors of the study believe that dogs can mimic their owners, as well, especially if they have a close bond.

More research is needed according to Dr. John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science, BBC reported.

“Domestic dogs are exquisite readers of body-language, both that of other dogs, and, uniquely, our own – which is why they’re so easy to train. They also love to play, so quickly learn that imitating the actions of their play-partner means that the game goes on for longer. But science has yet to show that dogs have any understanding of other dogs’ thought-processes, or emotions.”

Palagi agreed that more research on canine mimicry should be completed.

“Further research should focus on the demonstration of rapid mimicry in wolves, to evaluate if the phenomenon in dogs has been shaped by the domestication process or is evolutionarily rooted in the line of social carnivores.”

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