It has taken a while for scientists to find out what dog owners the world over already know : Dogs can read the emotions of people by the looks on their faces.
While we know that some breeds including Cavoodles and Poochons have a better innate ability to read their owner’s emotional state that other breeds, dogs in general are great at reading body language. This study focused solely on different facial expressions.
A recent study published in Current Biology has found that dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry human faces. We were long thought to be the only species that can tell what the emotions of another species are based on the expression on their face. The researchers believe dogs also have this capability.
“We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them,” says Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.
Previous studies testing the ability of dogs to discriminate between the different human emotional expressions have been less than convincing. In this study the dogs were trained to recognise happy or angry expressions in the same person. Then they tested whether the dogs could apply this to new faces.
The dogs picked the right expression significantly more than what would be expected by guesswork or by chance.
“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber, senior author and head of the group at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute.
What the exact understanding of the different expressions mean to the dogs is hard to tell by they do link the happy faces to positive feeling and the angry faces with negative ones. When researchers tried to train angry faces with a reward, they found this very difficult. This suggests that the dogs already had a good idea from previous experience as to what an angry human face means for them. Probably that an angry face meant a good time to keep away from the angry person!
The researchers expect to gain important insights into the famous bond between humans and dogs, as well as into the emotional lives of animals in general according to Dr Müller.