Dogs really can work out your facial expressions

A Golden Retriever adult and Golden Retriever pup. Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for the American Kennel Club

Science has found evidence that dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry human faces.

The research by Austrian scientists, published in the journal Current Biology, is the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions in another species.

“We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them,” says Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine in Austria.

Previous attempts had been made to test whether dogs could discriminate between human emotional expressions but none have been completely convincing.

“Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna’s Messerli Research Institute.

It appears likely the dogs associate a smiling face with a positive meaning and an angry facial expression with a negative meaning.

Müller and Huber report that the dogs were slower to learn to associate an angry face with a reward, suggesting that they already had an idea that it’s best to stay awayf rom people with an angry face.

The researchers will continue to explore the role of experience in the dogs’ abilities to recognise human emotions. They also plan to study how dogs themselves express emotions and how their emotions are influenced by the emotions of their owners or other humans.

“We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favourite pets, and into the emotional lives of animals in general,” Müller says.

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