Is the Ability to Recognize Dog Emotions Inherited or Learned?

People can innately read some canine emotional expressions, but learning helps.

Posted Nov 19, 2019

Mark Henson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Source: Mark Henson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I was walking down a hallway towards a room on campus where therapy dogs and handlers were gathering for a de-stressing session for university students during their final exam week. It was then that I encountered a middle-aged woman and her young daughter.

My Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, immediately surged forward with a happy, friendly expression and a broadly waving tail to greet them in the manner that has made him such an effective therapy dog. As Ripley drew close to her I saw the woman extend her hands defensively, while stepping back and flashing a look of anxiety. But her daughter said, "It's okay mom. He's friendly."

I immediately tugged Ripley back to my side and reassured the woman that he was a therapy dog and was only trying to offer her a pleasant greeting. While still looking at my little dog nervously she said to me, "I am Muslim and grew up in Egypt where dogs are not kept in homes as they are here. Because of that, I cannot understand what dogs are saying to me or whether they intend to do me harm."

I must admit that I was somewhat puzzled at the time because many scientists believe that dogs and humans co-evolved. That means that because they shared the same living spaces and experienced the same evolutionary pressures both species changed in a parallel fashion. According to this theory, this resulted in dogs and people evolving special emotional signals and mental abilities that provide us with the skills to understand and communicate with each other and these talents are genetically transmitted. To me, this means that dogs should be able to understand basic human emotional expressions, and, at the very least, all people should have inherited some ability to at least differentiate between positive and negative emotional expressions in dogs.

That brief encounter came to mind as I read a recent report by an international team of investigators headed by Federica Amici of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. The scientists wanted to experimentally test the co-evolutionary hypothesis that the recognition of canine emotional expressions by people was innate. They reasoned that if this ability had evolved and was now coded in our DNA then even young children should be able to recognize the facial expressions of dogs. If there was a learned component to this talent then adults should be better at reading canine emotions.

Furthermore, they hypothesized that if the ability to read facial emotions was due to the co-evolution of humans and canines, we should be much better at recognizing emotions in dogs than we are at reading emotions in another species, such as chimpanzees, which, although they have faces which are more similar to humans than do dogs, chimps did not co-evolve with us.

In addition, the research team hit upon a novel way to further explore the question. Some cultural milieus are much more favorable to association with dogs than are others. For example, in a predominantly Islamic nation, dogs are not viewed favorably, are not generally accepted as household companions, and are often actively avoided. If learning plays a role in the recognition of emotions in dogs, then individuals in a culture that avoids interactions with dogs should have a poorer ability to perceive their emotional state compared to individuals who grew up in European cultures where dogs are often viewed as members of the household and social interrelations between people and canines are commonplace.

The participants in this study were a group of adults and a group of children aged between 5 and 6 years. Half of each group was selected from Morocco and were Muslim. It was presumed that they would have more negative attitudes toward dogs and a tendency to avoid contact with them. The other halves of each group came from various European countries, were not Muslim, and presumably had a more positive attitude toward dogs and interacted with them more frequently.

To test how well people can understand canine facial expressions, the researchers used sets of photographs of dogs, chimpanzees, and humans, displaying happy, sad, angry, neutral, or fearful emotions. The images of dogs that were used were all wolflike (like German shepherds) with pricked ears, a sharp muzzle, and short hair. The investigators reasoned that using dog faces without too much fur, and where the face was not too flat, would make their emotional expressions easier to read.

Participants had to judge which of the emotions each face was displaying.

If the ability to read canine emotions is inborn, then children ought to be able to recognize them. This was partially confirmed since these kindergarten-aged children correctly identified the photos of dogs when they expressed anger or happiness. However, they were not reliable in recognizing fear or sadness. The children were also not able to accurately interpret the facial expressions of chimpanzees, which was to be expected since these primates did not co-evolve with people.

There was some improvement observed in emotional perception by adults since they had higher overall accuracy. In addition to distinguishing anger and happiness in dogs, they could also recognize sadness. Like children, they were not so good at recognizing fear. Supporting the co-evolutionary hypothesis, adults were also not very good at recognizing the emotional expressions of the chimpanzees.

When the researchers then looked at the effect of cultural milieu they found that, as predicted by the idea that some of emotional recognition is learned, the non-Muslim Europeans were consistently more accurate in determining the emotions behind particular facial expressions in dogs than were Muslims who had grown up in an Islamic nation. Regardless of cultural context, both the Muslim and non-Muslim groups were pretty good at recognizing human facial expressions and were not very accurate at recognizing the emotions of chimpanzees.

To me, it appears that the conclusion that one should draw from this new data set is that there is some support for the idea that, perhaps through co-evolution, humans have developed some inborn ability to recognize certain positive versus negative emotions in their dogs. However, there is also an indication that learning, simply over an individual's lifetime, or facilitated by a culture that values association and contact with dogs, can help to improve our ability to perceive the emotions behind the facial expressions of dogs.

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


Amici, F., Waterman, J., Kellermann, C.M. et al. The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up. Scientific Reports, 9, 16414 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41598-019-52938-4