How dogs interpret facial expressions and audio cues


It seems like our two species, human and dog, got really good at reading each other’s faces. That shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, we’ve spent a long time together, between 15,000 and more than 100,000 years. So we have a lot of practice in mastering this important social indicator.

Researchers have looked at how dogs differentiate between our positive and negative expressions, and a recent study also looked at how well we are able to read dog faces. In the current study of the person looking at the dog, participants (some dog people, some not) were asked to rate the dogs’ emotional states based on their facial expressions. Options ranged from sadness, fear, disgust and anger / aggression to happiness and surprise. Participants were also asked to rate the extent to which these emotions were expressed. The results showed that people, even those who were the least empathic, were pretty good at it (the more empathic observers got the highest marks). We seem natural about it. As Charles Darwin noted, our facial expressions are similar to those of dogs. So, if we understand human frowns and smiles, we can similarly infer how our closest non-human companions feel.

In a previous study, * researchers wanted to see how dogs perceive both human and canine emotional states. Photos were paired with audio cues: dog faces / dog vocalizations, unfamiliar human faces / audio in Portuguese (to prevent dogs from recognizing certain words). In this test, dogs scored 67 percent, which means they looked longer at facial expressions that matched the audio cues. The researchers concluded that dogs “can distinguish between positive and negative emotions from both humans and dogs,” and therefore showed that these adaptive benefits enabled them to “evaluate others’ motivation for social intentions”. A fascinating first shot of yet another example of species communication, and yet more evidence of our very long-term relationship with dogs.

Many of us speak to our dogs as we do to children, raising our voices and speaking more slowly. Some just talk to puppies, others talk to adult dogs as well. But do the tone and cadence make a difference to a dog? One group of researchers asked this question, and the results of their study showed that puppies actually respond better to the higher approach, “Who is my baby?” By becoming more alert and responsive. Adult dogs did not seem to have any preference. (I do know, however, that no matter how I do it, my dogs just love to hear me talk to them.)

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