I Know How You Feel: Reading The Emotions Of Dogs
Learning to identify emotions in other people is part of normal childhood development. It is a critical skill for navigating human society. Learning to recognize emotions in other species can be equally valuable, especially if the species spend much time together. Meanwhile, wild animals that learn the vocalizations, fear expressions, and body language of other species in their habitat may have a survival advantage. In the case of dogs, over the 30,000 years we’ve been living together, dogs have become remarkably adept at communicating with us. They use eye gaze, follow our gestures, and learn our words. They can also recognize our emotions and use that information to adjust their behavior. But is the reverse also true? Are humans just as skilled at reading canine emotions?
Prior studies have shown that humans can recognize auditory signals such as aggressive or “stranger” barks, and body language that signals positive emotions is more easily interpreted than displays of negative feelings. The influence of biology through the “co-domestication hypothesis” may also play a role. Convergent evolution may have led both humans and dogs to evolve emotional displays and cognitive skills that create reciprocal understanding and communication. Finally, culture affects how people relate to dogs because certain cultures have an extremely negative view of the species. For example, in Europe and the U.S., dogs are integrated into society. In contrast, traditional communities in Muslim countries view dogs as impure. As a result, people who grow up in these cultures simply have less opportunity to learn about dog behaviors through everyday interactions or co-habitation.
To better understand the influence of experience and culture on reading dog emotions, the researchers in this study tested human ability to recognize the facial expressions associated with various emotions in 20 dogs, 20 humans, and 20 chimpanzees. Subjects included (1) non-Muslim European dog guardians; (2) non-Muslim European non-guardians; (3) Muslim non-guardians who came from countries where Islam is the majority religion but had lived in Europe for at least three years; and (4) Muslim non-guardians living in Morocco. A total of 77 children and 89 adults took part in the research.
For the experiment, adult participants viewed images of the faces of dogs, chimpanzees, and humans. The faces displayed anger, fear, happiness, sadness, and a neutral state. Adult subjects had to identify both the emotion and the context in which the photo had been taken. For the children, researchers simplified the procedure. They asked them to look at just 15 pictures and select one of the five emotions for each.
Results show that we recognize some dog emotions, such as anger and happiness, independently of experience from an early age. This may support the co-domestication hypothesis since the ability appears to be innate. Reliably identifying other emotions requires at least some familiarity with dogs. Indeed, for adults, simply growing up in a culture with a positive attitude towards them makes it more likely that they will correctly interpret canine emotions. Perhaps for this reason, subjects who had spent part or all of their lives in a dog-negative culture, were less able to identify canine emotions. Furthermore, unsurprisingly, all adults were better at identifying human emotions than dog emotions, except for anger.
Animal advocates can use this study to inform their messaging in locations where there is a mix of cultural backgrounds. When people grow up around dogs, even if they never bring one home, they are better at “speaking dog.” They can interact more safely and successfully with dogs they encounter whether in a park or a friend’s home. By contrast, people whose cultural milieu does not favor dogs are more at risk because they are less able to identify potentially dangerous situations. Education efforts could take this knowledge gap into account, which could serve to improve dogs’ standing and perhaps even mitigate efforts to restrict canine presence in society.