Can dogs judge character? What science says

Many dog ​​breeds are naturally friendly and become excited about meeting new people or at least maintain a calm but reserved demeanor. So when a dog growls or seems afraid of a new person, we often assume there is a good reason for it.

If your normally friendly dog ​​suddenly becomes suspicious or aggressive toward a stranger, is that cause for concern? Can dogs judge character? While not infallible, dogs have the ability to sense mood, body language and other cues that indicate a person’s intentions – good or bad.– and read their owner’s comments.

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Can dogs judge character? What science says

Dogs that judge human character or sense “good” and “bad” people have long been a belief among pet owners. There are even several sayings that suggest we should trust our dog’s judgment when it comes to new people, but not much research has been done on this topic.

However, a recent study of Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews discovered that dogs can recognize whether someone is being nice or rude to another person, and use that information to determine whether that person can be trusted.

The study asked dog owners having difficulty opening a container and asking a stranger for help1. The strangers were instructed to stand there passively, to help or to refuse to help. Then each stranger offered treats to the dogs. The dogs responded by refusing treats from the strangers who did not help their owners.

Some researchers believe there is truth to this, as dogs have evolved along with humans and must analyze our body language to decide how to respond to us. They should be ‘quick studies’ to decide who will help or harm them.

Dogs depend on us for everything, from food and shelter to love and companionship. Historically, dogs that can pick up subtle cues from human behavior and body language may be less likely to find themselves in dangerous situations.

Welsh Corgi dog being petted by its owner outdoors in a parkWelsh Corgi dog being petted by its owner outdoors in a park
Image credits: Tanya Consaul Photography, Shutterstock

Can dogs read body language and emotions?

In general, dogs can read body language and nonverbal communication. Research shows that dogs can pick up on details of body language to anticipate our behavior, whether that’s a subtle threat to their safety or knowing that you’re about to take them for a walk.

In research labs, dogs outperformed chimpanzees, small children and their wild counterparts – wolves – at interpreting human body language. Like humans, dogs have a specialized brain area in the temporal lobe dedicated to reading body postures.1 And to take it a step further, dogs’ brain activation extended beyond visual processing to the parts of the brain that process smells.

It’s a holistic perception, but dogs value body language and scent more than facial expressions, which are the most important source of information for humans.

Are dogs a reliable judge of character?

The idea of ​​a person’s ‘character’ is changeable and determined by human culture, religion and time. It is impossible for us to clearly define ‘character’ in black and white terms for humans, let alone dogs.

However, dogs can sense something. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to interpretation, and it can vary by dog ​​breed, age, personal history, socialization, and more. For example, some breeds love everyone, like Beagles, while others are naturally more protective and aloof, like German Shepherds or Akitas.

When we look at situations from a dog’s perspective, people who behave unusually or exhibit behavior that could be perceived as threatening may have an aggressive or fearful response. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad person, just that the dog (or owner) is uncomfortable.

For example, if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, chances are your dog will too. This does not necessarily mean that the dog thinks the person is dangerous or untrustworthy, but that he sees a change in your behavior.

People can be good judges of character, but they are not infallible. The same goes for dogs. They may react to innocent people who have no malicious intentions, such as people with movement disorders or people who are stressed or nervous for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual dog.

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Image credits: Guillem Gaber, Shutterstock

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The verdict

“Can Dogs Judge Character?” is a nuanced question with no clear “yes” or “no” answer. Yes, dogs can interpret human body language and emotions, both from a stranger and from their owners, and use that information to make judgments about their safety and comfort levels.

Their response to different people, like ours, is determined by their own history and experiences, and may not be a perfect indicator of someone’s intentions. However, dogs can sometimes pick up on the subtleties of body language better than we can, so it’s worth paying attention if your normally friendly and cheerful pup suddenly becomes unsure of a person. Your dog may sense your feelings of discomfort without you even realizing it.

Featured image credits: Mary Swift, Shutterstock