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It's clear that dogs are very good at picking up on the tone and emotion of the people around them, but I'm wondering if this is something that is instinctual or learned based on previous experiences.

I found an article in Psychology Today that touches a bit on this, but it doesn't exactly answer the cause of a dog's knowledge. For example, would a stray dog that hadn't been in contact with humans before be able to tell if a person was happy or angry? Or is this something that pet dogs pick up through classic conditioning while living among humans?

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  • Probably some of both. Some signals are undoubtedly shared by many mammals. Others aren't.
    – keshlam
    Oct 14 '15 at 4:56
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Combination. Each emotion we feel stimulates the production of different hormones which the dog "senses" or smells. Hence dogs are excellent detectors for people who have epilepsy for example as they can inform the person they are about to have an episode. Oral volume in which ever circumstance whether positive or negative stirs excitement, as we all know on our nights out or interactions with people we are thrilled to see and wish to share our thrill.

I currently live in Egypt and have rescued a few dogs and adopted four. Obviously they are used to Arabic, however we have never had problems communicating. Break it down. Remember, a dog has the intellectual intelligence of a three year old, but the perceptive intelligence of the Dalai Lama.

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It's possible that some of it is instinctual, since man and dog have had such a close relationship for so long a time. There is plenty of other things we've changed about dogs, down to the basest level. So it's possible that we've also bred in an instinct about how to react with humans.

However, I think the vast majority of it is learned behavior. As an example, just think of the people you know. I bet that every person who reads this will know at least one person who is loud, mouthy, and aggressive sounding, but you know that they don't mean it. Conversely, you probably also know a person who is fairly quiet, but when they yell or curse, you really take note and it's almost shocking. Since people are so different from one another, you can't really breed in a reaction to human behavior. It's based on the individual person.

Also, you use a stray dog as an example, but I think it would be a very, very small portion of stray dogs that haven't come into contact with people in some form or another. Maybe the dog is getting into their garbage to eat something and the person comes out hollering and chasing them off. Maybe the person sees their hungry and feeds them. These would be completely different experiences that would affect the dogs behavior toward people and how it felt about their interactions with them. Thousands of these interactions make up the dogs (or any animals) reaction to any given situation.

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I actually think that it's mainly instinctual. Dogs yip when they're excited (a high sound) and growl when they're defending or ordering another dog (a low sound). No one teaches them this; they just know. Humans, too, typically use sounds the same way, that's why it can be harder for men to communicate that they're happy with their dogs because they speak at a lower register.

But, I would actually argue that it's more the non-verbal cues that the dog focuses on, rather than the verbal ones. A vast majority of their communication with each other (and with us) is non-verbal. That's why two seemingly unaffected dogs can suddenly go after each other. They saw the non-verbal cues that we miss. Dogs read our faces from left to right just like humans do, because the right side of our face (which would be on the dog's left) is more expressive than the left side. They're the only animal that pays attention when a person points. That stray dog would be able to tell if we were relaxed or stressed just by how we carry ourselves and the tension in our voice, regardless of pitch. So even if we didn't say anything, it would know if we were upset or not.

This isn't to say that nurture doesn't pay a role, because they learn what humans' sounds sound like, but I would say it was mainly nature that informs a dog's actions.

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  • My goats pay attention when I point. Apr 11 '16 at 20:23

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