After reading about a study of dogs’ responses to various facial expressions of human emotions, many things became clear to me. It also helped me read the face of one of my dogs with many anxiety-related behavioral issues. The study involved a group of dogs being shown images of people with different facial expressions. The journal Learning & Behavior published the results of the research earlier this year. It confirmed and expanded on the outcomes of a 2016 study. Let’s look at the earlier study first.
Dogs can understand human emotions
Let’s go back even further. In 2012 a cognitive psychologist reported that wolves, raised with humans, did not respond to human communication in the same way as dogs do. She said that dogs could identify or read human gestures even while they are still puppies. However, the general thought was that instead of understanding human behavior, they learned it through repetition.
Then, in 2016, scientists showed 17 different breeds of dogs photos of people’s facial expressions. At the same time, they played recordings of human voices. To their surprise, the dogs only glanced at the faces when the tone of voice did not match the facial expressions. However, when the scientists matched the voices and photos, the dogs looked at the faces for more extended periods. That study showed that dogs recognize human emotions.
Dogs turn their heads to show their emotions
The most recent study used 26 dogs. The scientists showed them the faces of people showing six different emotions. The models demonstrated fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust and surprise with as much intensity as possible. There was also one face with a neutral expression. The scientists gave each dog a bowl of food and monitored their heart rates and other responses when shown the images.
How did the dogs react?
Scientists started by monitoring their reactions when shown the neutral, expressionless face. They showed no response and went back to eating their food almost immediately. However, looking at facial expressions showing anger and fear caused increased heart rates, and it took them longer to go back to their food. Scientists reported that the dogs turned their heads and looked to the left.
Strangely, some reacted in a similar way when looking at the happy face. According to the researchers, their reactions indicated elevated stress levels. The reason, they speculated, might be the happy face showing bared teeth, which might cause uneasiness in the dogs.
On the other hand, the dogs turned their faces to the right when they looked at the faces expressing surprise. The researchers explained that surprised expressions were seen as non-threatening.
Finally, the dogs showed almost no reaction when they looked at the sad or disgusted facial expressions.
Why did the dogs turn their heads?
After this study, the scientists explained that turning their head to the left or right is evidence that different areas of their brains process different emotions. The processing of negative emotions appears to occur in the canine brain’s right side, explaining them turning their heads to the left. Similarly, positive, non-threatening emotions seem to be processed in the left hemisphere of the brain, causing them to look to the right.
Those of you with dogs that are a part of the family may want to observe their dogs’ reactions to their facial expressions. The bit about the head-turning to the left to show negative responses has made me look at my anxiety-ridden doggy with different eyes. Clearly, this understanding has benefited both of us, and I’m keen to learn more.