From the End of the Leash: Face to Face

From the End of the Leash: Face to Face

Hello dear readers, this is Tiberius. Today, I’ve been digging around on the Internet thinking about how humans and dogs communicate with one another. Sometimes, it feels like we’re soul mates, and other times, it feels like we’re from different planets! There is some common ground.

We canines intuitively pick up on whether humans seem relaxed, aggressive, frightened, or trustworthy, but there are also ways in which people customarily express how they feel that can seem a little foreign. Like, what’s this thing called sarcasm? Or, have you ever wondered whether dogs can tell the difference between a smile and a frown, and if they can, do they attribute meanings to these expressions in the same way as people do? If a human takes a cue from the furrowing of the eyebrows, does a dog get the same message – but through a stiff neck and head?

Research has shown us that people all over the world express emotions with the same facial movements, despite great differences in culture and language. Check out the work of Paul Ekman to find out more; he has done 30(!) years of research on how universal facial expressions are. What we don’t know is how dogs read and interpret these universal facial expressions.

There was a recent study titled “Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces” dedicated to exploring just that. The study, by Corsin A. Muller, asked if dogs could discern between happy faces and angry faces as well as whether they could put the different ways in which a face animates together to create a whole. To find out, they showed one group of puppies only the upper halves of the faces and another – only the lower halves of the faces. They also looked to see if novel faces with familiar expressions could still be identified as happy or angry.

The researchers discovered that dogs that were rewarded for identifying happy faces learned more quickly than dogs that were rewarded for identifying angry faces. It’s possible that, in the latter case, dogs had to unlearn their original association of angry face = no treat. This led researches to conclude that perhaps dogs drew upon their memories of real emotional human faces to discriminate between the faces in the study.

The results also inform us that when dogs assess happiness or anger, they are not doing so due to a single visual cue since they were found to be able to tell the difference even when they were shown only half a face. As often is the case, the study raised as many questions as it did answers. Did dogs evolve to be able to recognize human facial expressions, or was this always the case? Was it a little bit of both? There have been other studies as well that examine whether breed affects how long dogs look at their owners without reinforcement or whether a dog will be more likely to bring an object back if the human seems happy while handling it.

You’d think we’d be experts on this, considering how old the human-dog bond is, but, like many things in life, we may know something without knowing how we know. Now, I wish someone would do a study on dogs writing blogs!

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