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Interpreting Facial Expressions of Dogs
Humans’ empathy, personality and experience play a role

People understand and react to the facial expressions of dogs in ways that are similar to their responses to people’s expressions. Dogs can distinguish positive human expressions from negative ones, showing that they perceive the emotional content of human expressions. Our mutual understanding of one another is astounding considering that we’re not all that closely related, and yet few humans are surprised by it. We feel a kinship with our canine companions that goes beyond what we share with members of any other species except our own. The biological miracle of our relationship with dogs deserves the attention of scientists, and happily, that is happening more now than ever.

One recent study investigated the role of empathy, personality and experience on people’s ratings of facial expressions. People were asked to rate the expressions (in pictures) of people and dogs showing neutral, threatening or pleasant expressions with regard to each of the basic emotions of happiness, sadness, anger/aggressiveness, surprise, disgust or fear. They also rated how negative or positive the expression was. The study, “Human Empathy, Personality and Experience Affect the Emotion Ratings of Dog and Human Facial Expressions” found that many factors affect how people perceive the expressions of others.

People’s experience plays a smaller role in interpreting facial expressions of dogs than their personality and ability to be empathetic. This suggests that people have a natural, inherent ability to understand the facial expressions of dogs. Perhaps this is because we have co-evolved with dogs over thousands of years, but it may also simply be a result of the similarity of many facial expressions between humans and dogs. We share many of the same muscles and movements as dogs, as do many other mammals, an idea that was made popular in Charles Darwin’s classic work “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals” which was published in 1872. In that book, Darwin made the case that similar behavior in humans and other animals indicated similar internal emotional states, including emotions such as anger, fear, surprise, happiness, disappointment and love. He presented photographic evidence that humans and other animals reveal their emotions through similar facial expressions and behaviors.

Though the role of experience is minimal, it still has an effect on people’s interpretations of canine facial expression. People who were involved in dog-related hobbies such as agility, obedience or hunting, rated happy faces of dogs as “more happy” than people who lack such experience. Experienced people were also more likely to rate neutral expressions as happy, perhaps indicating the subtly of relaxed, content expressions in dogs, or a more positive views of dogs among people who have a lot of experience with them.

Empathy—the ability to understand the emotions and experiences of others—played an especially strong role in the way that people perceived canine expressions. People who are particularly empathetic interpreted the facial expression of dogs more intensely and more quickly than people who are less empathetic. Researchers point out that it is not known whether empathetic people are any more accurate in their assessments of canine expressions.

Personality traits such as being extroverted or being neurotic influenced people’s interpretation of facial expressions. Extroversion influenced ratings of human expressions, but not canine expressions. Neuroticism scores were correlated with lower rankings of anger/aggression in neutral expressions of both species.

The results of this study show that there are many facets to interpreting the emotional expressions of both dogs and humans, and that psychological factors in the observer have an influence. Reading dogs’ facial expressions is a talent and a skill—both natural ability and experience influence people’s reactions to them.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

photo by Julep67/Flickr

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