People Can Accurately Read Dogs’ Facial Expressions

Interestingly, people who do not own dogs were a bit better at accurately labeling canine emotions than people who do own dogs

Photo: Duane Storey

Walk in on your dog chewing up your shoe, and he’s likely to put on a guilty face. Throw him a bone, and he’ll grin from ear to ear. Tie him up in the yard during a party, and he’ll likely look sad and longingly at the festivities.

As it turns out, you’re not imagining these dog facial expressions. Dogs do project their feelings through their expression, and people are generally pretty good at interpreting them, Wired reports.

To scientifically show this, researchers from Walden University in Florida relied upon a Belgian shepherd named Mal. The researchers subjected Mal to a number of activities in order to elicit various emotions, then took his photo during his most expressive moments. To inspire his happiness, the researchers praised him; to make him sad, they reprimanded him; to surprise him, they scared him with a jack-in-the-box; and to make him angry, they had a colleague pose as a criminal.

Then, they asked 50 volunteers to take a look at the pooch’s photo spread.  Nearly everyone accurately picked out Mal’s “happy” photos, just under half of participants correctly labeled “scared” and “sad.”  Just 13 percent were able to detect “disgust,” which the researchers elicited by feeding Mal medicine with a bad taste.

Interestingly, Wired points out, those people who did not own dogs performed a bit better than those who did. The researchers are not sure why this was so, though they speculate that judging a dog’s emotions may be an innate ability we all have, though dog owners might be oddly biased against admitting a pet may be disgusted or angry. The question of whether cat lovers may be better at picking out emotions such as “disdain,” “condescension” or “mania” in felines’ expressions awaits further experimentation. 

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