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Dogs Interpret Different Emotional Expressions, Like Humans Do

Jan 20, 2016 04:08 PM EST
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Domestic dogs have the same social gazing behavior as humans, according to a new study from the University of Helsinki in Finland. This suggests our canine companions are impacted by different emotional expressions. 

When tracking a dog's eye gaze researchers discovered that the animals have a systematic way of viewing facial expression, with preference for following one's eyes. Different facial expressions also alter how a dog reacts - especially when they perceive something as a threat.   

In the latest study, a total of 31 dogs of 13 different breeds were observed using specialized eye gaze tracking techniques, designed to demonstrate how dogs view the emotional expressions of dog and human faces. The dogs were first clicker-trained so that they would remain motivated in front of the monitor screen without being restrained. (Scroll to read more...)


(Photo : University of Helsinki)
Dogs view facial expressions on a monitor.

Generally speaking, researchers found the dogs looked to the eye region first, and examined this area more thoroughly than one's nose or mouth. Although certain species-specific expressions appeared to attract the attention of the dogs, such as the teeth-baring grins of other dogs deemed threatening.

Dogs have evolved an adaptive mechanism that allows them to detect and avoid threats as a means of survival. Therefore, threatening faces evoke a certain attention bias. However, this is species-specific, meaning dogs spent more time analyzing the threatening face of a fellow canine, whereas a threatening human face triggered an avoidance response.

"The tolerant behavior strategy of dogs toward humans may partially explain the results. Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond them with pronounced appeasement signals," Sanni Somppi, one of the study researchers from the University of Helsinki, said in a statement

This is the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in non-primates and supports Charles Darwin's long-standing theory that human and non-human animal emotional expressions share evolutionary roots.

Their study was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE and a video of their eye gaze experiment can be found online.

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