Factors Affecting the Human Interpretation of Dog Behavior
This study from Sweden examines the effect of empathy on how humans interpret animal behavior, and specifically how veterinary students interpret the behavior of dogs. Using a combination of written questions and video footage, the researchers sought to determine what factors contribute to the perception of dogs as “aggressive” among vet students. The results of the study suggest that feelings of empathy and interpretations of aggression are (perhaps not surprisingly) negatively correlated, but also that an individual’s claims of knowledge about an animal do not necessarily mean that person will correctly interpret that animal’s behavior or feel increased empathy towards them.
Correctly interpreting dog behavior is a good skill to have for anyone who has a dog as a companion. It is especially important for vets who are likely to work with dogs every day, need to be able to avoid being bitten by aggressive or aggravated dogs, and help dog companions to assess behavior and provide medical treatment. Researchers here tried to find out how much empathy, the ability to perceive, understand, and share the emotions of another, determines how vets interpret the behavior of dogs. In this study, they hypothesized that, “both a cognitive understanding of dogs (knowledge of the species, dog body language etc) and an emotional understanding of dogs (empathy) would affect the interpretation of behavior.” To measure empathy, they used an Animal Empathy Scale established in previous research and set those measurements against (1) a questionnaire about experience with and knowledge about dogs, and (2) a series of videos depicting dog behavior for which respondents were asked to give adjective ratings.
Some of the results of the study seem fairly obvious: “self-reported emotional empathy with animals was inversely correlated with the tendency to describe dog behavior as aggressive: the lower the students scored on the Animal Empathy Scale the higher they scored on adjectives related to aggression. We also found that personal experience with dogs interacted with this correlation, such that the inverse relationship between animal empathy and interpretation of dog behavior as aggressive was seen only among students with no personal experience with dogs.” However, researchers identified some results that went contrary to their suppositions. Most significantly, they found no relationship between self-evaluated dog skills (the vet students’ perceived ability to understand dogs) and the interpretation of dog behavior. Likewise they found that it was only aggression, and no other aspects of dog behavior (like playfulness or nervousness) that was associated with low empathy. Also, they found no clear link between respondents having previously lived with dogs and their ability to interpret dog behavior (or display empathy towards them).
How can this study be related to advocacy or the broader care of companion animals? The authors note that “for everyday life with dogs, the present findings bring attention to the fact that traits like empathy for animals may have important impacts on how dog behavior is interpreted.” Considering that “aggressive” dog behavior is often cited as a reason why dogs are given up for adoption or to be euthanized, this point cannot be overlooked. For their part, the authors suggest that “increasing empathy and positive attitudes toward animals through, for example, ‘humane education programs’ might help to prevent dog phobias.” In any case, it seems vital to consider that, when assessing or interpreting a dog’s behavior, the observer needs to be observed as well.
Several factors influence how we interpret the behavior of another individual. In the current study, we investigated the effect of level of animal empathy, as well as the level of experience with dogs, on the interpretation of dog behavior. Forty-seven veterinary students participated in the study. Each student filled out a printed questionnaire on their experiences and skills with dogs, and then completed the Animal Empathy Scale. They were shown five 2-minute videos of dogs, and asked to cross off 19 visual analogue scales after each video clip, assessing 19 adjectives for each of the dogs. Principal component analysis (PCA) was performed on all of the visual analogue scale scores for each of the five videos. For every PCA, one of the components retained related to aggressiveness. For students with no prior responsibility for a dog, animal empathy score showed significant inverse correlations with the aggressiveness-component for four of the five videos watched by the students (r = –0.38, p = 0.044; r = –0.39, p = 0.039; r = –0.38, p = 0.047; r = –0.51, p = 0.005). Animal empathy did not show any significant correlation with components related to other types of emotion or behavior. There was no effect of any of the self -reported skills with dogs on the interpretation of dog behavior, and having had a dog in the family as a child only had sporadic effects. These results indicate that people with a low level of animal empathy and no prior responsibility for a dog assess dog behavior and emotion related to aggressiveness as more pronounced than people with a high level of animal empathy. The results also point to possible interactions between animal empathy, experience with dogs, and interpretation of dog behavior.