Can dogs understand emotions?

Dogs have the rare ability to tell emotional expressions apart, and not only for each other, but for humans.
18 July 2016

Interview with 

Natalia Albuquerque, University of Lincoln


Many dog owners will say they know what mood their dog is in, or their dog instinctively knows when to cheer them up. This may sound like anthropomorphising, and some of it is,  but dogs have actually been shown to be able to tell facial expressions of humans apart. Natalia Albuquerque, from the University of Lincoln, joined Kat Arney to explain why she was interested in this ability.

Natalia - I think we all agree that the dog/human relationship is very, very, special and is particularly interesting also from a scientific point of view, and we already knew that dogs were able to discriminate facial expressions. For example, they know the difference between a smiley face and a blank face and they would behave differently towards different facial expressions of emotional expressions. But, at the same time, we didn't know, we had no evidence of whether dogs could actually obtain emotional information from those faces. That means, for example, one thing is knowing that visually a spoon is different from a fork, but knowing that what is a fork and what is a spoon. So we wanted to see if dogs could have any kind of understanding of what is a facial expression, and what is our voice, and what is our vocalisations.

Kat - How do you go about testing this? Do you just go - how do I look dog - do I look happy?

Natalia - So what we did - everything was very spontaneous. There was no training, there was no familiarisation phase involved. The dogs were sitting in front of two screens and on each screen there was a facial expression being presented from the same individual. So on one screen there would be a happy face and on the other screen would be an angry face, and at the same time we would play a sound that could be either a neutral sound, as a control, or a vocalisation, so of the voice. So a human being, for example, saying something in a happy manner or...

Kat - Good dogs, good dog.

Natalia - Yes.

Kat - Or bad dog, naughty dog.

Natalia - So we controlled from the content and we actually wanted to see if they could obtain this information from the emotional perspective.

Kat - So what do you find - how are dogs interpreting this stuff?

Natalia - In that case, we would expect if an individual can recognise what is a facial expression; whether it is positive or negative - at least the main categories. Positive versus negative - happy versus angry, for example. In that scenario, in that set-up, we would expect the individual to look longer towards the happy facial expression upon listening to the happy voice, and longer towards the angry facial expression when listening to the angry voice.

Kat - So they're kind of matching up what they're seeing with what they're hearing?

Natalia - Yes, perfect! In that case, for example, if you can't see anything but if you listen to someone laughing we would expect to see someone smiling because that voice comes with that image.

Kat - So you're finding that dogs can do this - they can kind of go oh, that seemed happy, that seems angry?  Why can they do this - what's the point of dogs being able to do this?

Natalia - Yes, that's a very interesting question. And I think the first point is from an evolutionary point of view, from an evolutionary perspective, it's very important to be able to read not only facial expressions but the emotional expressions. For example, if you're part of a social group, especially in a complex social system, so it's very interesting, it's very adaptive, and biologically advantageous if you can read the other members of your group's emotions. In that case, to know who should I approach, who should I avoid. That member of my group is angry, is happy and that would be very interesting. And dogs are naturally social so we believe that this was a cognitive ability they already had to interact with members of the same species with other dogs. In that case with wolves and ancestors, and probably during their domestication, this shared evolutionary period with human beings, they may have developed it, refined this. So to read emotions from other individuals may have been selected and this may be the key for dog/human interaction.

Kat - You said there that maybe this has come because dogs could recognise the emotions of dogs or wolves as they were. So dogs have emotions then?

Natalia - Yes, that's another...

Kat - Like good day, bad day, miserable day?

Natalia - So in the emotion research area we have two groups of emotions. So we have basic emotions - sadness, anger happiness, and we have the more complex and secondary emotions such as jealousy, guilt. And as far as we know, dogs have all the basic emotions so they can have a happy mood, or playful, or aggressive but we have already some evidence that they may have some kind of more complex emotions as well.

Kat - Lots of dog owners will say they know their dog has done something naughty because they just look at it and that thing looks guilty. Do dogs really feel guilt or are we just projecting?

Natalia - Yes. There's only a few studies been done looking into that and, as far as we know from those studies, that usually the guilty look is more in anticipation of a punishment. So that when we recognise that they did do something wrong they would look like - oh no, I think I'm going to be punished and we're not sure whether they actually feel guilt. That guilty look may be more of a learned response towards - oh no my owner said what did you do and then the dogs just like - oh no I'm going to be punished.


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