Dr. Ernie Ward looks into the age-old question: can we tell what our pets are feeling based on their facial expressions? For more from Dr. Ward, find him on Facebook or at www.drernieward.com.
“Look at him, he’s so happy!”
Most pet parents will tell you they can tell what their pet is feeling simply by looking at them. For years, mainstream scientists have dismissed reading a dog’s emotional facial expressions as wishful thinking. New research suggests we may be able to correctly guess our pet’s feelings after all.
Back in 1964, Dr. Niels Bolwig, a pioneer in behavioral biology, described the facial expressions of dogs and their corresponding emotions. In 1970 Dr. Michael W. Fox, later of the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), dismissed Bolwig’s research and claimed pet dogs were unreliable test subjects for facial expressions. Fox postulated that due to domestication, dogs had learned facial expressions that worked best to achieve their goal, especially when their goal was food. Since then, little research as been conducted on dog’s facial expressions. Until now.
Teams from the psychology department of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in Marienville (you read that right - a prison), and tiny Walden University in Minneapolis (with help from the University of Florida) decided to see if humans could accurately read a dog’s emotional facial expressions. The scientists took photographs of a Belgian shepherd police dog, Mal, as he experienced different emotions. For example, they praised Mal to elicit a “happy” reaction. The handler reprimanded Mal to create a “sad” picture. A jack-in-the-box was used to “surprise” Mal, and a repulsive medicine that Mal strongly disliked was used for “disgust.” Mal disliked having his nails trimmed; that’s how they captured “fear.” To cause “anger” was easy; they suited up a police officer as a bad guy. Each photograph was a close-up of Mal’s face and head.
The pictures were shown to 50 volunteers divided into groups based on their experience with dogs. Their findings were surprising.
“Happiness” was the most accurately judged emotion in the study. 88% of the study participants correctly identified “happy” while only 37% identified “sad.” The next most predictable emotion was “anger” at 70% judging correctly. 45% recognized when Mal was “frightened” yet only 20% spotted “surprise.” A scant 13% knew when Mal was “disgusted” by the bitter medicine. Then it gets interesting.
This study found that people with minimal dog experience are better at identifying anger and disgust than more experienced dog lovers. The lead researcher Dr. Tina Bloom postulates that experienced dog owners convince themselves that their own dogs aren’t truly aggressive and the associated facial expressions are viewed as “play behaviors.” She speculates that reading dog’s faces may come naturally to humans instead of being a learned skill. Bloom seeks further research into whether our apparent natural empathy with dogs is shared with other mammals or if this is the result of our co-evolution with dogs for the past 100,000 years. Bloom is an admitted dog lover (she shares her home with two Dobermans and two Rhodesian ridgebacks) and described herself as “very confident” that she can read the faces of her dogs.
Dr. Bloom summarized, “If I adopted a cat, or a snake or a turtle, I don’t think it would be as emotionally attached to me and watching my face as much as a dog would. There is something different and special about a dog — I’m not sure what it is, but it’s there.”
I don’t agree with her view of cats on this issue, but I understand what she means. We can all agree there’s something special about the relationship between humans and mammals (and maybe even snakes and reptiles). Go see if your dog is happy. You’re probably going to be right if it is.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
Diagnosing Allergies in Dogs
If you have ever undergone allergy testing, then you know that diagnosing allergies is often complicated.
The first thing your veterinarian may choose to do is rule out any other condition that could be causing your dog’s symptoms. If your veterinarian feels that an allergy is a likely cause, he or she may propose allergy testing to try and determine the cause of the allergen that is causing the reaction. However, keep in mind it may not always be possible to determine the cause of an allergy with testing.
Food allergies are often diagnosed using an elimination diet. A food trial consists of feeding a dog a novel (i.e. one) source of protein and carbohydrate for 12 weeks.
Flea allergy dermatitis is typically the easiest allergy to diagnose. It is usually diagnosed by identifying fleas on your dog’s body and applying a product that kills fleas before they can bite to see if that solves the issues.
Research Shows Your Dog Can Hear When You’re Happy or Sad
Dogs’ ability to communicate with humans is unlike any other species in the animal kingdom. They can sense our emotions, read our facial expressions, and even follow our pointing gestures. They seem to possess a special skill for knowing exactly how we’re feeling. But not much is known about the role that hearing plays in that ability. Recent research from the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Bari Aldo Moro in southern Italy looked at how dogs process human emotions based only on our vocalizations.
Previous studies have shown that dogs can combine hearing and sight to match happy and angry human faces with happy and angry vocalizations. When using only their hearing, researchers found that dogs can distinguish the positive sound of laughing from the negative sound of crying, and that negative sounds upset and arouse dogs more than positive ones. There are six basic emotions that humans can recognize from vocalizations, regardless of culture: fear, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and happiness. The current study aimed to investigate if dogs can recognize all six from nonverbal vocalizations alone.
Thirty dogs were tested in a simple setup. The dogs were given food in a bowl in the center of a testing room, and two speakers were evenly spaced on either side of the bowl. This put the dog an equal distance from each speaker. While the dogs were eating, the speakers played nonverbal human sounds. For example, fear sounds were screams and happy sounds were laughs. The reaction of the dogs to each sound was videotaped.
The scientists were interested in whether the dogs turned their heads to the right speaker or to the left, although both speakers were playing the same sounds. There are two reasons why this is important. The first is because dogs, like humans, use the left side of their brain to control the right side of their body, and vice versa. The second is that previous research has shown dogs tend to process emotionally positive sounds with the left side of their brain and emotionally negative sounds with the right. If the dog turned to the left upon hearing the sound, it would indicate he was processing that sound with the right side of his brain, and therefore, interpreted it as negative.
Results showed that dogs turned to the left for the fear and sadness vocalizations. The trend was the same for anger, but the results were not statistically significant. This indicates the dogs were processing these particular sounds on the right side of their brain, and therefore interpreted them as negative. For happy sounds, the dogs turned to the right, showing that they interpreted them as positive.
Disgust and surprise didn’t show any significant trends, perhaps because those emotions are more context dependent. For example, poop may be disgusting to humans, but it’s exciting to dogs. So, the dogs may not have known how to interpret the disgust and surprise without further information.
Overall, it seems that dogs can determine human emotions using only their ears, at least for happiness, fear, and sadness — using the right side of their brain for processing negative emotions and the left side for positive ones. Additional data collected on heart rate and behavior, such as tail wagging and yawning, supported these findings. That means future studies of head turning, matched with behavior and physiological data such as heart rate, could allow new insight into animal emotions. We can’t ask dogs how they feel in a given situation, but by using these methods, we may be able to determine whether those feelings are positive or negative.
What Is Your Dog Telling You?
How many times have you wished your dog could talk so you could know exactly what they are thinking?
But they don’t need to speak to clue you in. Veterinary behaviorists say if you learn to read your dog’s actions, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on in their head.
Debra Horwitz, veterinary behaviorist and lead editor of Decoding Your Dog, says the key is looking at your whole dog, rather than a portion of them, like just their tail. Observing what your dog does with their face, body, and tail in any given situation will let you know if they are feeling relaxed, concerned, scared, or aggressive.
When you look at your dog, what do you see?