Canine Corner

The human-animal bond

Dogs Read Your Emotions and Attach Them to What You Look At

Your dog reads your emotions and attaches them to the things you love and hate.

I had paused to watch as a number of primary school aged students were rallying to begin a soccer game. Some of the players wore T-shirts which were green and the others wore plum colored T-shirts and those colors seemed to identify the teams. A number of observers who were also in the 10 to 12-year-old range gathered to observe the competition. Many of these observers also wore plum or green colored shirts. One of the plum shirted observers had a cinnamon colored Pomeranian dog with her. As she moved around the edge of the field she encountered another girl wearing green. I don't know what the situation was but the girl with the dog made what appeared to be a series of angry comments pointing at the other girl who stoically held her ground and did not seem to respond in turn. As the plum shirted girl with the dog began to move away the dog made a wide circle to avoid the green clad girl who had been the target of her mistress's anger. Then somebody from behind them called and the girl with the dog reversed her course and once more passed by girl wearing green. Again the dog swung widely away to avoid drawing near the girl in green. At that moment the part of my brain which deals with behavioral observation and analysis clicked in. It seemed to me almost as if the negative emotional outburst of the dog's mistress had been clearly interpreted by the dog as belonging to the girl in green. The dog was now avoiding that person who was the target of her owner's negative feelings.

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In human infants the ability to recognize emotions and to understand that they may be associated with a particular object has been verified in toddlers aged 14 to 18 months. I remembered a paper published in the journal Developmental Psychology a few years back. It described a study by psychologist Betty Repacholi, who was then working at the University of California at Berkeley. She arranged a room with two boxes, and had the child's parent look in each box. When looking in one box the parent expressed a very positive and happy emotion, however while looking in the other box the parent expressed disgust. When the child was later allowed to explore the room the vast majority of the children went to the box which had been attached to the happy expression and avoided the box which was associated with the emotion of disgust.

This same general research method was recently adopted by Isabella Merola, Emanuela Prato-Previde, M. Lazzaroni, and Sarah Marshall-Pescini at the University of Milan and the results were published in the journal Animal Cognition. They added a few twists so they could not only see whether dogs recognized a human's emotional expression and might attach it to particular objects, but also to see whether the expressions of the dog's owner were more likely to be recognized and acted on than those of the stranger. There were a number of different conditions and analyses but let's stick to the ones which are most important for this discussion.

dog canine pet emotion communication anger feeling sentiment

The setup involved two boxes each containing a toy. In the main experiment 55 dogs were tested and in one condition the dog's owner looked into one box and simulated a happy expression sounding very enthusiastic and interested and saying (in Italian) things like "oh nice, really nice" using tones that were high pitched, musical and positive. While looking at the other box the owners were told to sound as if their dog were about to do something dangerous or they had witnessed something shocking and fear provoking. This resulted in something like an exclamation of "Oh! How ugly!" spoken in as tense a tone of voice as the dog owners could manage. In addition, the owner was also told to act out the emotions using body language, such as crouching more toward the box when the positive emotional expression was being made and jumping back from the box when expressing the negative emotion. Afterwards the dogs were released and allowed to explore the room. 81% of the dogs went to the box associated with the happy expression, which shows that the dogs not only recognize their owner's emotional expressions but attach those emotions to whatever object their owner was looking at or addressing at the time. When the same emotions were expressed by a stranger, the dogs did not seem to give them enough credence to guide their behaviors and the dogs performed virtually at chance levels with only 46% going to the box where happiness was expressed.

In a subsequent experiment it was found that the dogs are more likely to act on positive emotional expressions than on negative. In this experiment involving 40 dogs, the same procedure was repeated except that for one box the owner expressed a positive, happy emotion, while for the other box the owners were asked to use a neutral expression, as monotone and free of emotion as they could, saying something like "Oh that's useless". In another group the negative, fearful, emotion was paired with this neutral expression. In the case of the positive emotion and 75% of the dogs chose the "happy" box. The dogs acted at chance for the pairing of the neutral and the negative emotion, suggesting that dogs are looking for the good things in life rather than necessarily avoiding the bad things. Once again having the emotions expressed by a stranger did not influence the dog's behavior at all.

So once more we find that dogs act like young children. Your dog is watching you, and learning what you like and approve of, and guiding his behavior based upon your emotional responses.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; 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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