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The Hidden Factor That Influences Your Ability to 'Read' Dogs

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

dog emotions

Story at-a-glance -

  • The results of a recent study suggest the human ability to identify canine facial expressions depends to a certain extent on one’s cultural background and whether it is “dog-positive” or “dog-negative”
  • An earlier U.S.-based study suggests the opposite — the ability is innate vs. acquired
  • In U.S. airports, TSA dogs with floppy ears are perceived as less intimidating and “scary” than dogs with pointy ears

Humans and dogs have been living cooperatively and collaboratively for so many thousands of years that no other animal is more integrated into our daily lives than canis lupus familiaris — the domesticated dog. And it seems the more time we spend together, the more attuned we become to one another.

Dogs can be trained to understand human words and facial expressions and respond to our verbal cues. They also often react to our emotions in ways that indicate they “get us” and even feel compassion for us.

The human-dog bond is particularly prominent in Western societies, but it remains to be seen whether all humans innately understand dogs. Is human intuitive empathy toward dogs entirely learned, or entirely innate?

Study Involved Participants from Both ‘Dog-Positive’ and ‘Dog-Negative’ Cultures

In a recent study, researchers in Germany and the U.K. evaluated the ways in which humans’ experience with dogs influences their ability to identify canine emotions.1

The research team recruited volunteers with a wide range of experience with dogs, including people who had grown up with dogs, people who were part of cultures that appreciate dogs (e.g., much of Europe and the Americas), and others whose culture informs them that dogs are unclean and shouldn’t be kept as pets (e.g., certain Islamic societies).

Ultimately, the study included four groups: European dog owners; Europeans without dogs; Muslims from countries in which Islam is the majority religion, who were living in Europe for at least 3 years but did not own a dog; and Muslims living in Morocco who did not own a dog. There were 88 adults and 77 children across the four groups.

The researchers showed the study volunteers images of the faces of 20 dogs, 20 chimpanzees, and 20 humans displaying either a happy, sad, angry, fearful, or neutral expression. The participants were asked to rate how much each picture represented each emotion and were also asked about the context in which the photo was taken.

Cultural Standards Appear to Influence Adults’ Ability to Identify Canine Emotions

The researchers noted that the children’s ability to identify dog emotions was similar whether they had experience with dogs or not. The kids were able to identify only angry or happy expressions, and interestingly, they recognized those emotions more often in dogs than in chimpanzees.

When it came to the adults in the study, the researchers observed that their ability to identify emotions was indeed influenced by their experience with dogs. The adults who grew up in homes with dogs or whose culture was “dog-positive” were more adept at recognizing dog emotions than those who had less exposure or experience. According to the study authors:

“These results are noteworthy because they suggest that it is not necessarily direct experience with dogs (i.e. dog ownership) that affects humans’ ability to recognize their emotions but rather the cultural milieu in which humans develop.

Growing up in a cultural milieu in which dogs are viewed as highly important for humans, and are highly integrated in human lives, may result in different passive exposure, or different interest and inclination toward this species.”2

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In the U.S., Dogs’ Ears Seem to Influence How They Are Perceived

Acknowledged limitations of the study include narrow groups of participants and the fact that cultural attitudes are nuanced and may or may not apply to or be embraced by all members of a culture. In addition, the images used to show canine emotions were limited to dogs with German Shepherd-like faces — other breeds obviously have different or perhaps more identifiable facial expressions.

Somewhat related to this last point, interestingly, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in airports across the U.S. is moving away from “pointy-ear” dogs like the German Shepherd and Belgian Malinois in favor of breeds with floppy ears, such as Labrador and Golden Retrievers, German Shorthaired Pointers, Wirehaired Pointers, and Vizslas.

"We’ve made a conscious effort in TSA … to use floppy ear dogs," TSA Administrator David Pekoske told the Washington Examiner. "We find the passenger acceptance of floppy ear dogs is just better. It presents just a little bit less of a concern [and] doesn’t scare children."3

Around 80% of the 1,200 dogs TSA uses nationwide have floppy ears; the remaining 20% have cone-shaped ears. About a third of the dogs screen passengers at airports, and the other two-thirds are certified to work as sniffer dogs for explosives on baggage, not people. The dogs in the larger group are available to be redirected to help with local law enforcement in the case of certain types of emergencies.

I’m just guessing here, but it seems to me that less acceptance of certain breeds like the German Shepherd, and the notion that they “scare children,” is a learned rather than an innate response, based both on cultural depictions of these types of dogs, as well as the jobs they often perform as police and military K9s.

Earlier Study Suggests the Human Ability to Identify Canine Facial Expressions is Innate

In 2013, a team of U.S. researchers set out to see if humans could accurately read a dog’s facial expressions. They published their findings in the journal Behavioural Processes.4

The study used pictures of a 5-year-old Belgian Shepherd named Mal. The photos showed Mal experiencing various emotions prompted by the researchers. 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. Finally, 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.

Viewing the photos, study volunteers (50 adults, separated into two groups based on whether they were experienced or inexperienced with dogs) were able to determine when Mal was happy, sad, angry, surprised or scared by looking at a picture of his face.

  • Happiness was correctly identified by 88% of the participants
  • Anger was recognized by 70%
  • Fear was identified by about 45%
  • Sadness — a relatively subtle emotion — was recognized by 37%
  • Surprise was identified by just 20% of participants, and disgust by only 13%

(The full study, including photos of Mal’s facial expressions, can be downloaded here.) Interestingly, the researchers found that the group with the least amount of exposure to dogs was better at recognizing disgust and anger. They theorized that dog owners may convince themselves their pet isn’t aggressive and rationalize negative expressions as “just playing.”

The researchers concluded that these results suggest humans possess a natural ability to understand what animals are feeling, and in addition, that 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.