Posted on 17th Feb, 2015: This might freak you out, but your dog can not only sense what space you are in but also recognize your facial expressions. For instance, that angry look you give your dog when he chews up your shoe or when you smile at him when you wake up in the morning, he can tell what’s going on just by seeing your face.
Of course, animals and humans are naturally trained to recognize emotional cues among their own kind. But recognizing facial cues and emotional expressions in other species, is more complicated. But not so complicated that a dog can’t learn how to do it.
Posted on 16th Feb, 2015: In an experiment conducted by animal psychologists at the University of Vienna, in Austria, researchers trained dogs to respond to various emotional expressions. The study’s participants (a total of 24 dogs were originally included in the experiment, but 13 needed to be removed from the study for various reasons) were taught to respond to both happy and angry faces. Some dogs were shown only the top halves of faces, while other dogs were shown only the bottom halves.
After showing the faces a few times so the dogs would be able to register them, they were then shown a new round of images. The stimuli were four types: new faces (different people) exhibiting the same expressions; the other half of previously used faces; the corresponding halves of the new faces; and/or only left half of previously used faces.
This is the first time that a species, other than human beings, has been shown to recognize emotions through facial expressions in another species. All the previous studies examining emotional recognition of human emotions by dogs were inconclusive.
Dogs were able to recognize the emotional cues as trained using all four types of stimuli. The results proved that the dogs could use their training to recognize previously unseen tops and bottom halves of faces, as well as project their understanding of emotional cues onto new faces.
The researchers used pictures of people, exhibiting happy and sad faces, in the study. Investigators began by training the dogs to react to photos. Pictures of people with neutral expressions were shown to dogs, along with the back of the same subject’s head. When the dog touched the picture showing a face, they were provided with a small treat. A total of 15 pairs of pictures were used during the study.
The dogs in the study reacted the most to expressions of happiness, and the least to anger. That may be because the dogs try to avoid angry humans.
The dogs in the study were able to recognize emotions not just by looking at the mouths, which are the most obvious sign, but also by looking at the eyes. This implies the animals actually recognize emotions, rather than just reacting to physical characteristics.
The study doesn’t explain why dogs have this ability, but according to the researchers, its clear that centuries of cohabitation has something to do with it.
Published in the journal Current Biology, this study is part of a larger project studying how humans and their dogs interact.
Check out the following BBC report on this story: