Reading Those Puppy Dog Eyes

While we have often discussed how universal emotional expressions are, emerging research is expanding this universality even beyond our own species!

A recent 2017 study from the University of Helsinki sought to better understand how humans recognize emotions and facial expressions in dogs. The study found that, not only can humans effectively read canine expressions, but many only had to rely on basic human empathy to do so.

While it seems intuitive that humans with long-term experience living with dogs can learn to read their facial expressions, this study went further, finding that previous experiences with dogs were only a secondary factor.

Instead, the ability to empathize in general proved to be an effect method for understanding canine facial expressions. That said, participants with previous experiences with dogs were better able to understand other aspects of body language, such as posture or tail movements.

This research built on previous work that explored our capacity to read canine expressions. In a 2013 study, researchers at the Walden University in Florida showed human participants images of a dog displaying various emotions, including happiness, fear, sadness, anger, and disgust. Long-term followers of this blog might notice a telling overlap with the seven basic emotions.

While participants often had trouble identifying sadness and disgust, almost half were able to recognize fear in the dog’s face. Surprisingly, 88 percent properly identified happiness, including those with little previous experience with dogs.

This study helped establish our ability to read canine emotions, and the more recent study from the University of Helsinki demonstrated that this ability is rooted in facial recognition, not unlike our ability to recognize emotions in fellow humans.

Perhaps more surprisingly, it isn’t just humans that can read dog emotions. Additional research has also found that they are quite good at reading ours!

For example, a 2016 study out of the University of Lincoln, exposed dogs to a series of images displaying human facial expressions. They juxtaposed these images with audio clips of humans expressing similar emotions through voice commands. Sometimes they matched the audio and visual cues to present the same emotion, while often they exposed the dog to conflicting emotions.

Their research found that dogs showed a marked increase in attentiveness and interest when the audio and visual cues displayed the same emotion. This suggested that they had the ability to recognize human emotions, from both our facial expressions and our voices.

Concurrent research, again at the University of Helsinki, came to a similar conclusion. A 2016 study tracked the eyes of dogs that sought to read human faces, finding that they focus primarily on our eyes and responded quickly to expressions of anger.

These methods of inquiry help bridge the gap between human and animal emotions. This does more than understand interspecies interactions. In fact, by comparing forms of facial or emotional recognition, we can better understand the nuances of our own, human capacities.

For more information on animal emotions, see our past posts here and here.

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