Emotions Are Written All Over Dogs’ Faces

But who can read the message?
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2019

Where and how we grow up influences who we become in so many ways, including, it turns out, how well we can recognize dog emotions. In a comprehensive study of this phenomenon, researchers found evidence that the role of dogs in a culture plays a role in the ability of people from that culture to correctly interpret the emotional content of canine facial expressions.

The authors of the new study The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up show that experience matters when it comes to reading the emotion in dogs’ faces. To evaluate the importance of experience, researchers asked participants to determine the emotion being expressed on the faces of dogs, chimpanzees and humans. If people are better able to recognize chimpanzee emotions than those of dogs, it would suggest that success is based on being closely related to the study subjects. If people are better at identifying dog emotional expressions than chimpanzee emotional expressions, it suggests that experience may play a role in that success. (Another possibility is that evolution has changed humans or dogs or both to allow better communication between our two species, which would be advantageous due to the closeness of our relationship over tens of thousands of years.)

Adult participants in the study were a mix of people who have dogs and those who don’t. They included people who live in cultures who value dogs highly as well as those who live in cultures that do not consider dogs such esteemed members of society. There were also participants who come from cultures that do not value dogs but who have been living for at least three years in regions of the world where dogs are highly valued.

The main conclusion of the study is that the ability to recognize canine emotions is obtained and improved through experience. The ability of children to recognize the emotions of dogs was similar regardless of experience—the culture they lived in was not a factor. Of all the emotions, children were only regularly successful at identifying anger in dogs, with limited success interpreting expressions of happiness. They were far better at identifying human emotions and worse at recognizing emotions in chimpanzees than in either humans or dogs.

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The pattern seen in adults was different. Adults’ ability to recognize canine emotions was related to the experience of growing up in a culture that placed higher value on dogs, regardless of whether they had their own dogs. People from cultures that placed a high value on dogs in society were better at identifying sad, happy and angry dogs as well as those exhibiting a neutral expression than people from cultures that do not value dogs as highly. Whether or not people had a lot of dog experience, they were not proficient at identifying fear in dogs.

Interestingly, all of the adults in the study were similarly poor at identifying emotions in chimpanzees regardless of their dog experience. Those results suggest that experience with dogs does not adding to people’s general ability to interpret animal emotions.

If you excel at identifying canine emotions, you are likely a product of a culture that considers our canine friends to be important members of society.

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 has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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