Dogs Can Mimic Expressions: New Study Shows That ‘Emotional Contagion’ Gives Dogs The Ability To Mimic Expressions [Video]

Dogs can mimic expressions is the result of a new study coming out of Italy. In order to test their theory, researchers captured of video of 49 dogs while they were playing. When the video was studied, researchers discovered that the dogs mimicked the same expressions as the other dogs they were playing with. Researchers are calling this behavior emotional contagion.

Emotional contagion is a form of empathy that is seen in other animals. At its basic form, the mimicking is a form of empathy. Humans, orangutans, chimpanzees, and other primates all exhibit this type of behavior. Researchers felt dogs would be great for this study due to how dogs use their eyes, lips, and mouths in ways to convey the emotions they are feeling. Humans and other primates express emotions using these things as well. Dogs were perfect test subjects.

“For the first time, researchers discovered the presence of rapid mimicry in dogs. They found that dogs mimicked playful interactions more rapidly and strongly than other behaviors, such as jumps or bites. Moreover, playful sessions interspersed with rapid mimicry lasted longer than ones without it.”

Elisabetta Palagi, a sociobiologist at the University of Pisa in Italy, was also the lead author of this study.

“I think that natural conditions are extremely important if we want to reveal a phenomenon as really it is. Lab studies are very important, but lab conditions can inhibit some behaviors.”

The dog mimic study took place at a dog park in Italy. The owners of the dogs that were participating in the test were asked questions about the dogs relationships with each other. Researchers wanted to know which dogs were familiar with each other and which dogs were strangers to each other. The dogs were grouped as “friends” if they were exposed to each other at least three times a week. Dogs that would see each other a couple times a month were considered “acquaintances. “Strangers were dogs that never met.

While at play, the dogs would begin mimicking very fast. Some of the behaviors that the dogs begin mimicking right away were jumping, play biting, and other playful behavior. Like humans, the dogs mimicked the ones they knew, as opposed to the dogs they were unfamiliar with.

“Everybody is infected by others’ smiles and laughter if the trigger is a friend.”

A previous study was done with dogs and humans. The study determined that dogs were able to notice different human emotions based on how their body was positioned and they way their face looked. The study also found that if a human yawned, a yawn could be triggered in the dog. Researchers believe that was this empathic behavior was one of the ways that man was able to domestic dogs. Karine Silva, from the Universidade do Porto in Portugal, commented about they yawing phenomenon.

“Unexpectedly, results showed an interesting interplay between contagion and social effects. Not only were dogs found to catch human yawns, but they were also found to yawn more at familiar than unfamiliar yawns.”

Palagi commented about the future of this kind of research.

“Further research should focus on the demonstration of rapid mimicry in wolves, to evaluate if the phenomenon in dogs has been shaped by the domestication process.”

Dogs mimicking other dogs and humans has been an idea researchers have had for a long time. Some studies have even shown that dogs can start to take on other traits of the humans that they live with. If the mimicking is one of the key factors in how man domesticated dogs, then we are on our way to full understanding how that process worked.

Do you have a dog that mimics you or other dogs?

[Image Via Bruce Bennett/Getty Images]