We all like to think that we have a deep and unshakable connection with our pets that transcends any language barrier between species. I mean, be honest. Don't you feel like your pet knows you better than some people do? I certainly do. But can pets really detect human emotions?
One of my uncles died recently very unexpectedly, and I naturally felt torrential waves of sadness — sadness for my aunt, who'd been married to this man for 45 years; sadness for my cousins, who adored their father with every fiber of their beings; and sadness that my uncle would miss so much.
During this time, my white German shepherd, Jaws, proved especially clingy. He followed me from room to room, always plopping down by my feet or resting his head on my knee whenever I came to a stop. And in those days, I was confident in the conviction that Jaws knew I was sad and was doing his best to comfort me.
However, as is and probably always will be the case with companion pets, there's much controversy over how much exactly these animals understand and how much of their behavior is simply instinctual or reactive.
So in order to get a more definitive idea of whether or not pets can truly detect human emotions, we turned to Wendy Van de Poll, international best-selling author and founder of the Center for Pet Loss Grief.
With numerous credentials including everything from certified end-of-life and grief coach to reiki for people and pets, Van de Poll has a unique pedigree indeed — one which includes running with wild wolves in Minnesota and showing Samoyeds competitively for four years.
Essentially, her life's work is animals and the bonds they share with humans. What better brain to pick about the ability of pets to tell what their human companions are feeling at any given moment? And so we asked Van de Poll that very question, and she answered confidently and without hesitation.
"Absolutely, pets can detect human emotion," she insisted. "I see this mostly when I am supporting a person or an entire family during pet hospice."
She elaborates, saying, "People come to me because they want to help their pet reach the end of their lives with comfort and ease. During this time, people are often experiencing some raw grief emotions — there is mind chaos, stress, anxiety, anger, etc. These normal grief feelings are sometimes difficult for people to process on their own. When they come to me for support during pet hospice, I not only help their pet with gentle massage, energy work and a soothing environment, I also help them with their own emotions as a pet loss grief coach."
During a treatment, Van de Poll pays extremely close attention to the humans' behavior as well as the animal's. Therein lies the key to the question of animals and human emotions.
"The way the pet looks at me and their owners, the flick of a tail, the placement of their body, the rise and fall of their heartbeat, how they reach to touch and their human's and my voice," says Van de Poll, "all of these actions are cues to how animals detect human emotion."
As far as the scientific community goes, well, let's just say they're still mulling over the notion that animals can read human emotions. However, according to National Geographic, evidence is mounting.
A 2015 study by biologist Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, found that dogs are able to distinguish between happy and angry human facial expressions — without relying on certain physical facial cues, such as a wrinkle between the eyes.
So while science may need more empirical data to back up the claim, many pet experts (and owners alike) feel comfortable asserting that pets can, in fact, detect human emotions. Of course, it comes as no surprise that Van de Poll is one of them.
"There have been countless times during this special moment [the end of a pet's life] where I will be working with a pet, and they are calm, rested and breathing with ease — everything is just as the owner wants for their pet," she recounted. "Then comes the moment when the owner starts to express a feeling of grief. Immediately, their pet's heartbeat changes, they open their eyes, they lift their head and their breathing stops for a brief moment."
How does Van de Poll explain this sudden shift?
"Their pet becomes concerned with how their person is feeling," she says. "I can't tell you how common this is... eventually, when the pet sees their human begin to relax again, they quickly go back to a peaceful state and a huge breath of relief follows."
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