A story in yesterday’s The Telegraph focuses on a study based at Pennsylvania’s Walden University that explored whether humans can tell what a dog is feeling by looking at its facial expressions. Anyone who owns a dog will say that they can tell when the animal is sad or excited or nervous, but this is the first time the phenomenon has been studied this way.
Researchers used photographs of a police dog named Mal as he experienced different emotions. For instance, “To trigger a happy reaction, researchers praised Mal. The result was the dog looking straight at the camera with ears up and tongue out.”
The photographs were then shown to 50 volunteers, many of whom did not have much experience with dogs, to see if they could recognize the emotion expressed in Mal’s face.
By far the easiest emotion they recognised was happiness, with 88 per cent of the volunteers correctly identifying it. Anger was identified by 70 per cent of participants.
About 45 per cent of volunteers spotted when Mal was frightened, while 37 per cent could identify the relatively subtle emotion of sadness.
The canine expressions that were hardest for humans to identify were surprise and disgust, with only 20 per cent of the volunteers recognising surprise and just 13 per cent recognising disgust.
Although it seems obvious, some of the findings of the study are pretty fascinating, and they speak to the psychology of dog owners.