But when it comes to recognising whether Fido is being playful, threatening or feeling frightened, women are better than men.
A study included 40 volunteers who listened to different growls from 18 dogs in various situations, including guarding their food, facing a threatening stranger or playing tug-of-war.
The participants identified 81% of the ‘play’ growls but were not so good at recognising food-guarding and threatening growls.
In an article in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Dr Tamas Farago and his team from Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary wrote: “Participants associated the correct contexts with the growls above chance. Moreover, women and participants experienced with dogs scored higher in this task.”
When playing, dogs produced a larger number of shorter, less separated, growls than when aggressive or fearful.
Growls during play and food-guarding had distinctively different pitch characteristics.
As well as identifying growl contexts, the volunteers also had to rate growls on a sliding scale based on five emotional states – aggression, fear, despair, happiness and playfulness.
The scientists said context had a “significant effect” on reading dog emotions – playful growls were rated lowest for aggression, and food-guarding growls highest.
The scientists concluded: “Our results… indicate that dogs communicate honestly their size and inner state in serious contest situations, where confrontation would be costly, such as during guarding of their food from another dog.
“At the same time, in contexts with assumedly more uncertain inner states, such as in play or when threatened by a stranger, they may manipulate certain key parameters in their growls for an exaggerated aggressive and playful expression.
“According to our results, adult humans seem to understand and respond accordingly to this acoustic information during cross-species interactions with dogs.”