University of Otago researchers are using crying babies, a mixture of robots and finger food to settle the issue of whether dogs understand when humans are sad or angry.
For a year now, the team led by researcher Ted Ruffman have been delving into the psyche of man's best friend.
"We're interested in whether dogs are empathic or understand human emotional expressions."
Ruffman says they already know that dogs are good at picking up on human gestures.
"What this study is trying to do is figure out whether or not they're good at picking up on human emotions as well."
The tests include recording the dogs' reaction to a baby crying.
"Essentially what happens is the dogs are more interested, they seem to want to get to the human when they hear crying," says Ruffman.
The reaction in the dogs is different when compared to a baby laughing or babbling.
"They are usually quite relaxed; they sit down, curl up and lie down or don't even look in that direction."
So far, 150 dogs of all sorts have "taken part" in the study.
The research results could have other benefits.
Dogs are used in a number of special settings, like hospices, working with the blind and in at least one case, to help a young girl diagnosed as a selective mute, to find her voice.
Ruffman says the research may help in finding which breed of dog is most responsive to human emotion and which could then be used in nursing and old age homes.
"If there are dogs that are more responsive to humans and understand humans better, I think those breeds would be very well suited."
The final conclusion on dogs and their emotions is still a while away. The tests will continue for several years before the answers are found.