By Dr. Becker
An intriguing study published in June in the journal Behavioural Processes1 suggests that people can accurately distinguish a range of emotions in dogs by studying their facial expressions.
Teams from the psychology department at the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and Walden University in Minneapolis, with an assist from the University of Florida, set out to see if humans could accurately read a dog’s facial expressions.
Study volunteers were able determine when the dog was happy, sad, angry, surprised or scared by looking at a picture of the animal’s face. These results suggest humans possess a natural ability to understand what animals are feeling.
According to Dr. Tina Bloom, a psychologist with the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections and lead researcher:
“There is no doubt that humans have the ability to recognize emotional states in other humans and accurately read other humans’ facial expressions. We have shown that humans are also able to accurately – if not perfectly – identify at least one dog’s facial expressions.
“Although humans often think of themselves as disconnected or even isolated from nature, our study suggests that there are patterns that connect, and one of these is in the form of emotional communication.”
How the Researchers Evoked Facial Expressions in the Dog
The study used pictures of a five year-old Belgian Shepherd named Mal. The photos showed Mal experiencing various emotions. When Mal was praised, he showed a happy expression with ears up, tongue out and looking directly at the camera.
When the researchers reprimanded him, Mal’s expression became sad, with eyes cast downward.
To capture a surprised expression, the researchers used a jack-in-the-box, and Mal wrinkled the top of his head.
Medicine with a bad taste brought out the dog’s disgusted expression – flattened ears. Next came the dreaded nail clippers, which made Mal prick up his ears and show the whites of his eyes.
To produce an expression of anger, one of the researchers acted the part of a criminal. Mal, a police dog in real life, bared his teeth into the beginnings of a snarl.
Volunteers Correctly Identified Happy Mal Most Often
The images of Mal’s expressions were shown to a group of 50 study participants who were separated into two groups based on their experience with dogs.
- Happiness was correctly identified by 88 percent of the participants.
- Anger was recognized by 70 percent.
- Fear was identified by about 45 percent of participants.
- Sadness – a relatively subtle emotion -- was recognized by 37 percent of the group.
- Surprise was identified by just 20 percent of participants; disgust by only 13 percent.
Interestingly, the researchers found that the group with the least amount of exposure to dogs was better at recognizing disgust and anger. Dr. Bloom and her colleague, Prof. Harris Friedman, theorize that dog owners may convince themselves their pet is not aggressive, and rationalize negative expressions as “just playing.”
Bloom and Friedman also believe the ability of people with little or no experience of dogs to identify facial expressions – sometimes more accurately than dog owners – is perhaps because it is an innate rather than an acquired skill.
Will Future Research Show Humans Empathize with the Feelings of Other Mammals as Well?
Dr. Bloom, in speaking with The Telegraph, expressed hope that future research will investigate whether the natural empathy humans have for canines also extends to all mammals, or whether it is the result of the unique bond we’ve shared with dogs throughout history.
Bloom admits she finds such unproven theories emotionally appealing. “If I adopted a cat, or a snake or a turtle, I don’t think it would be as emotionally attached to me and watching my face as much as a dog would,” she said. “There is something different and special about a dog — I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there.”
The full study, including photos of Mal’s facial expressions, can be downloaded here.