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How We Perceive Our Pups
Empathy affects how we read canine facial expressions.
Empathy is our ability to understand and be sensitive to the feelings of others. But does this extend to how we interact with our pets? Researchers at the University of Helsinki and Aalto University set out to explore how empathy and other psychological factors affect the way we perceive both dogs and other humans

Based on previous research, the scientists knew that people with higher emotional empathy evaluated other people's expressions more quickly, accurately, and often more intensely. Their study was the first to show that human empathy affects how we perceive our pups.

In their experiment, participants were shown images of human and canine faces, and as a control, inanimate objects and abstract pixel images. They were instructed to estimate how the target in each image was feeling.

The study found that empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of canine facial expressions, though the accuracy of those assessments is unreliable.

Miiamaaria Kujala, one of the postdoctoral researchers, said it's possible that empathetic people actually over-interpret the expressions of dogs.

The researchers also looked at another characteristic--experience with dog training. While empathy affected assessments of canine facial expressions more than previous dog experience, earlier studies showed that past training experience increased in importance when interpreting the dog's body language as a whole.

That makes sense given how much time dog trainers spend on learning to understand canine body language.

Expression type also made a difference. The researchers found that people assessed happy human faces more intensely than happy canine faces--and the opposite was true when looking at threatening faces. The team believes this may be due to the tendency to perceive faces of your own species as generally more pleasant. They also found that people experienced in dog training estimated the happy expressions of dogs as happier than others did.

So it seems that our empathy does extend to how we perceive our pups, and our experience with training deepens how we understand them.

 

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JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.

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