Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Can Humans Really Interpret the Facial Expressions of Dogs?

We may not be able to read a dog's facial expressions as well as we thought.

Evolution has designed animals so that they have distinct expressions which reflect their emotional state. These expressions serve a communication purpose that allows us to select appropriate behaviors in social interactions. Thus if we see an individual whose face indicates that he is angry, we can avoid interacting with him an thus possibly avoid conflict, while we may respond to an individual whose facial expression shows fear by trying to provide support and comfort, and so forth. Although the whole body can be involved in showing an emotion, for human beings it is the face which provides the most useful information. In general we are quite good at interpreting the emotions behind particular human facial expressions. But how good are we an understanding the emotions behind particular facial expressions in dogs?

 Dogs do have a variety of distinct facial expressions, however canines are much more limited in what they can do with their faces. This is because a dog's face is dominated by his muzzle. A dog's muzzle serves as both a weapon and a tool to manipulate the environment, so it is designed for strength rather than for flexibility. That means that the mouth and the lower portion of the dogs face can only adopt a limited range of expressions. Nonetheless, it is important for humans, as well as for other dogs, to know which emotions have triggered a particular expression that we are seeing on a dog's face.

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 In a recent piece of research, about to appear in the scientific journal Behavioural Processes, two researchers, Tina Bloom and Harris Friedman, working at Walden University in Florida explored our ability to accurately read emotions from dogs' faces. A look at their data reveals that in some instances humans are quite accurate at reading the faces of dogs, but in other cases our ability to interpret canine expressions are rather abysmal.

 The first problem which any researcher has in addressing the question of reading emotions is to be sure that the expressions that we are testing are actually caused by the emotions we want to explore. In this case the expressions tested belong to a Belgian Malinois who was photographed against a uniform background. The various emotions were behaviorally triggered, and were chosen to represent the six basic emotions (happy, sad, surprise, disgust, anger, and fear) plus a neutral expression. The happy expression was triggered when the dog was anticipating getting to play with a ball, while fear was triggered by displaying a pair of dog toenail trimmers that greatly distressed the dog. Surprise was triggered by operating a Jack-in-the-Box, anger was triggered by threats from a stranger, disgust by giving the dog a medication that he found distasteful, and sad by being chastised as if for misbehavior. Neutral involved simply sitting in one place. Three different photos of each emotion were selected for later testing.

 Two groups of individuals were asked to rate the photographs by indicating on a rating scale how much of each basic emotion (happy, sad, surprise, disgust, anger, fear and neutral) they could see in each picture. One group was selected because they were experienced with dogs (having trained a dog so that it earned an entry level obedience degree) while the second group was inexperienced, having never had a dog, and having little contact with canines.

 Overall, the researchers conclude that both experienced and inexperienced humans can recognize canine facial expressions, however they are using a very generous criterion to arrive at this conclusion. The accuracy rates for people who were experienced with dogs was less than half, coming in at 45%. The accuracy rates for people who are inexperienced with dogs was just a bit higher than one third, coming in at 38%. These levels are better than random guesses (which would give only around a 14% accuracy rate when choosing among seven different emotions) but certainly not anything to cause a celebration if we are trying to interpret the emotional expressions of our pets.

 

happy dog emotion pet communication interpretation

A happy dog expression

It turns out that for certain emotions we are pretty accurate. Our best recognition is for a happy expression at 88% accuracy. That relaxed, open mouthed expression, with the tongue rolling out over the teeth, has long been understood as a happy expression in dogs. In fact there are children's toys that can be traced back to 1500 BC in ancient Egypt that consist of a dog on a little wheeled platform that can be pulled across the floor. The model dogs used have this same expression, and this plaything is traditionally called "a laughing dog toy".

 The second best recognized emotion was anger at 70% accuracy, although one quarter of the participants (25%) misidentified this as disgust. The third best recognized emotion was fear 45% accuracy, though in this instance one third of the participants misread the emotion as sad (33%).

Unfortunately the accuracy of humans in reading the other emotions based upon the facial expressions of dogs alone is much poorer than I would have expected. Our ability to recognize surprise is not very good (at 20%), and it is most often misread as fear (37%). The sad emotion was also poorly recognized (37%) being often confused with surprise (33%) and disgust (35%). By the way our ability to detect disgust in dogs is less than chance (13%).

 Is this poor result evidence of a breakdown in communication between humans and dogs? Certainly such poor ability to read emotional state of a dog would be bad for our relationship with our pets. However one must remember that this study looks only at the facial expressions of dogs, and everyone who interacts with dogs knows that the dog speaks with its entire body. The actions and position of its tail is an important emotional thermometer. Another emotional indicator is the dog's posture (stiff legged and tall as opposed to cringing submissively and everything in between) and such body language speaks volumes about the emotional state of the dog. Experts at interpreting dogs will also look for things such as the hair standing out on the hackles and the tail, and whether the dog is panting or drooling. Also one must listen for what sounds the dog is making (e.g. growls, barks, whines or whimpers). In other words you must read the whole dog. This new research confirms that if you want to understand your dog's emotional state the rule of thumb should be "Not by face alone!"

 Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Born to Bark; Do Dogs Dream? The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

 Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C., is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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