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Do you know what your dog is thinking?

I have cats and I often regret that I don’t know what they’re thinking. A cat’s face is more often than not completely inscrutable. Dogs, on the other hand, seem only too willing to share their emotions. Its hard not to think that we know what a dog’s expression means. But, some recent research indicates that recognizing dog emotions improves with age and depends on the cultural experiences you grow up with.

Three dogs, three expressions. Photo by Jessica Schick

Amici, et al (2019) compared children and adult perceptions of dog emotions as seen in photographs. Five and six year olds were pretty good at identifying anger, but struggled with other emotions, even mistaking fear for more positive emotions. Children could identify happiness as well, although not quite as reliably. This difficulty was consistent regardless of whether the child had a personal dog or grew up in a culture with a dog-positive attitude.

Adults, on the other hand, who grew up in a dog-positive culture were better at at recognizing dog emotions. The overall social millieu was more significant than personal dog ownership. Adults can identify happy and friendy emotions and also angry ones; but, similar to children, adults struggle to identify fear-based emotions.

An interesting finding was that adults did better at identifying emotions when they were told to look at the context rather than focus on the emotions. This may correspond with how the emotions were identified in the first place. The owner/photographers of each of the dogs were asked to identify the emotions of the dog at the time. Presumably, they did this via both observations of the dog and of their context. This raises the question as to whether any of us are identifying emotions based on the dog itself or on the context. A dog running along the trails seems happy because it is in a context we think should lead to happiness.

Until we have the ability to actually understand what our animals, be they dogs, or cats, or rabbits, or bearded dragons, are truly feeling we need to be cautious with the assumptions we make about how we think they are feeling.

Amici, F., Waterman, J., Kellermann, C.M. et al. (2019). The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up. Scientific Reports, 9, 16414 doi:10.1038/s41598-019-52938-4

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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