You may think that your dog has no idea what you’re thinking, but chances are it’s written all over your face — and your pet knows what that expression means.
The idea that dogs can read human faces isn’t so strange since research has shown they can differentiate between one tone of voice and another.
New research shows that dogs can look at human faces and tell a smile from a frown and know whether you’re happy or sad. Leading the study was Corsin Müller, a cognitive biologist at the Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.
“We’re mostly interested in what’s going on in the heads of animals.”
But in order to correctly grasp the emotion of pets, the biologist and his team felt it important to know if dogs could grasp human emotion. This, of course, begins with being able to understand facial expressions.
In order to find out for certain whether or not dogs could read the faces of different humans, scientists used 11 different dogs.
The animals were placed in front of a kiosk which dispensed food based on their response.
Although the dogs were initially trained to only recognize the upper half of a happy or angry face, when the actual testing occurred, researchers found that they were able to distinguish other aspects of the human face, such as the left or right side and the lower half.
According to Müller, the test subjects were successful 70 to 80 percent of the time, a higher success rate than researchers were anticipating.
“I was impressed by the dogs’ performance. We expected this was a difficult task, and we weren’t sure they would be able to solve it.”
The researchers determined that the dogs not only remembered their training, but were able to learn quickly about human faces during the actual test.
“Our results suggest that the successful dogs realized that a smiling mouth means the same thing as smiling eyes.”
This is important because among many species, particularly dogs, bared teeth are in fact a sign of aggression.
The fact that human owners can smile without being perceived as a threat is likely due to the lengthy period during which dogs have been a domesticated species.
“The most likely explanation appears to be that the basis lies in the life-long co-habitation of the dogs with humans, during which the dogs get a lot of exposure to human facial expressions.”
This may also explain why owners find that their dogs often need only look at their faces to recognize that “bath time” expression… and to run away as quickly as possible!
[Image Credit: Soggydan Benenovitch]