When We Look Into Another's Eyes

Does it matter if we're gazing at a loved one or a dog we may meet at the park?

Posted Mar 23, 2014

In what to most readers may seem an obscure scientific journal, Behavioral Processes, a study was published last June that brings an entire new light to our human relatedness to other animals with whom we share our lives. Researchers at Walden University and the University of Florida set out to see if people intrinsically understood the emotions of dogs without explanation. Based on earlier research done with chimpanzees and humans, scientists have shown that we can acurately read and interpret facial expressions not only of fellow humans but also other primate species. But, the question these researchers posed was does this ability extend to our other companion species.

Though at first glance this article might seem esoteric, in very real terms it offers us insights into how we communicate with one another. And, simply put, the results proved to be quite remarkable. Merely by looking at photographs of a dog's face in different contexts (such as playing ball, meeting a stranger, or resting quietly with their companion nearby), human subjects of various backgrounds—both those accustomed and unaccustomed to living with dogs—consistently and accurately interpreted a dog's facial expressions. While the emotions that the researchers assigned to some of the contexts (i.e., anger, fear, and disgust) questionably describe a dog’s motivational states, both experienced and inexperienced subjects interpreted most emotions remarkably consistently. 

Drawing from earlier facial communication studies with humans and primates, it is fairly likely we are focusing in on nuances in a dog’s facial muscle tensions when we interpret their facial expressions. And outside of the study, of course, we also are taking in a full range of other signals including  body movements and postures. Nonetheless, what these researchers stunningly revealed is our human commonality with other species. The methods by which we relate and connect to each other are not solely human traits, but instead shared by other species with whom we share our planet. By one more small step we are shown how much alike we are to other creatures in our lives.

About the Author

Vint Virga, D.V.M., is a veterinarian in clinical practice specializing in behavioral medicine and the author of The Soul of All Living Creatures.

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