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Can humans understand the emotions behind dog facial expressions?

Is the ability to understand dogs an innate human ability?

Is that dog sad, scared or cheerful? Many people can read the emotional facial expressions of our animal friends very well. Is this an intuitive, innate human ability?

A recent study contradicts this assumption: the human ability to interpret facial expressions of dogs is not a matter of predisposition, but is learned and culturally shaped.

It is an animal-human relationship with ancient roots; the bond between dogs and humans can be traced back at least 15,000 to 30,000 years back. It is already known from studies that dogs have developed skills for understanding human gestures and words in the course of this long domestication process. They can even interpret the tone of voice and facial expressions of humans.

According to one hypothesis, not only dogs have adapted to their partners. Humans as well may have developed special emotional signals and cognitive abilities that facilitate understanding and communication across species boundaries.

What factors influence the ability to understand dog emotions?

Apart from personal statements by dog lovers, little attention has so far been paid to the question of how well can humans understand dogs?

Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have now devoted themselves to this research topic. For the first time, they have specifically investigated how well humans can interpret the facial expressions of dogs and where this understanding comes from.

The scientists presented photos of dogs to test subjects. The pictures showed happy, sad, angry, neutral or anxious facial expressions. The subjects, 89 adults and 77 children, were classified according to whether they owned a dog or not and whether they had grown up in a culture that had a positive attitude towards dogs.

Participants were asked to evaluate whether the dog in the picture was happy, sad, angry or anxious.

Cultural background: why cultural context is crucial?

As the scientists report, the results showed that the ability to reliably recognize the emotions of dogs depends mainly on age and experience.

Adults were best able to interpret dogs' facial expressions if they had grown up in a culture that was positive about dogs. Interestingly, dog owners did not perform better than subjects who did not have a four-legged friend.

In cultures where dogs play an important role in everyday life and are generally regarded as important, people obviously have passive experiences with dogs, the scientists explain. The results suggest that direct experience with dogs is not inevitably necessary to understand their facial expressions. Much more important is the cultural environment in which people grow up.

The probability of recognizing dog emotions was higher for respondents grown up in a culture that holds a positive attitude toward dogs

Another result of the study is that, regardless of their age or experience with dogs, respondents were able to reliably identify anger and happiness in dogs. In the case of these emotions, there might nevertheless be an effect of adaptation within the framework of co-domestication. On the other hand, it would also be possible for humans to recognize these emotions well in all mammals, say the researchers.

Apart from anger and happiness, however, children in the study were not good at interpreting the emotions of dogs. This suggests that the ability to understand facial expressions of dogs is not innate.

Further studies will show which concrete cultural aspects influence the human ability to understand dog emotions. The researchers hope that their work will also help to reduce conflicts between humans and dogs. Incidents happen above all when people are not capable of interpreting the warning signals of dogs, researchers say.