Can You Read Your Dog’s Facial Expressions?

People are good at identifying a dog's emotions

When your spouse or roommate comes home at the end of the day, can you instantly tell how he feels by the expression on his face? Psychologists have conducted research to better understand how people recognize the meaning of facial expressions they see in others. Canadian researchers recently investigated difficulties some children with learning disabilities have understanding the significance of facial expressions they see in others in the Journal of Learning Disabilities.

In a new study that will be published later this year in the journal Behavioural Processes, investigators from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections decided to investigate whether humans can determine a dog’s “mood” by looking at its facial expressions. In this study, photographs were taken of dogs that were happy, surprised, had just been reprimanded, were frightened, anxious, and so forth. Photographs were shown to people experienced with dogs and those who were fairly unfamiliar with dogs. Both those with and without dog experience were pretty good at identifying the dog’s emotions from photographs, although those experienced with dogs generally did better.

  • Some pictures showed a dog about to play ball and others a dog who was being teased by a bad person. When people were wrong about the dog being negatively teased, they usually incorrectly assumed the dog was getting ready to play. This may be why you’ll sometimes see people excessively teasing a dog and when you say the dog doesn’t like it, the person may insist the dog is enjoying the teasing.
  • Other common mistakes were misjudging sadness for disgust and surprise for fear.
  • Neither experienced nor inexperienced people could recognize when a dog had just eaten something unpleasant.
  • Surprisingly, the inexperienced people were more likely to correctly identify a dog showing an aggressive face than people who were more experienced around dogs.

Learn more about this study in the video:

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