Science finally confirms what dog owners have always believed: dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry human faces.
While there is a fairly strong scientific consensus that many species of animals express emotions similar to our own, this is the first study able to show that animals really can discern emotions across species – leaving the door open to ask how many other species can discern emotions, not only in humans but in other species more generally.1
But, how exactly did the researcher’s figure this out? It’s not hard to see the methodological flaw endemic to these kinds of studies: how do you know that you aren’t conditioning the dog to respond to a particular expression, instead of tracking its innate understanding of that expression?
Apparently, Dr. Corsin Müller and the research team at Clever Dog Lab (Squee! How cute!!) pretty much untrained the dogs, rewarding them for responding to neutral expressions, the back of heads, as well as portions of both happy and angry faces.
So, after all the untraining, the researchers tested the dogs. YES, THEY TOTALLY USED COMPUTERS.
Here is a picture of a dog using a computer:
The control group of dogs was rewarded only when they touched the happy face. The experimental group was rewarded only when they touched the angry face.
The researcher’s hypothesized that if the dogs really could recognize emotion it would take longer for the experimental group of dogs to learn to ignore their instinctive aversion to the angry face. And, this was exactly what the study showed!
So, this shows how many sessions it took the pups to decide whether they should touch the happy face or the angry face to get a treat. The solid line represents the angry faces, the dotted line represents the happy faces. So, after just 5 sessions dogs knew that if they touched the happy face they’d get a treat. It took the experimental group of dogs 17 sessions to learn that they got a treat from the angry face.
We’re guessing that this study probably needs to be replicated, and broadened out from just dogs for it to be super meaningful, but it’s certainly an exciting step towards understanding animal emotions.
And, here’s another picture of a dog using a computer. Because we can.
Featured Image by Shutterstock
Muëller et al., Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces, Current Biology (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.12.055 ↩