Researchers at the Universities of Lincoln and São Paulo have confirmed something many pet owners have always known – dogs really can relate to our human emotions.
The study involved observing the behaviour of more than 90 dogs to investigate how they relate human emotional displays to their actions. The dogs were presented with a social interaction between two unfamiliar people, either positive (happy), negative (angry) or neutral (did not display a particular emotion).
After witnessing the two people engaging silently with each other, the dogs were given the opportunity to approach to approach food that varied in how easy it was to access. It was either freely available or the dogs needed the humans’ help to get the food.
At the time of their choice, only neutral expressions were displayed, so the dogs had to use their knowledge about the meaning of the humans’ previous emotional expressions to decide which course to take.
Lincoln professor and co-author Anna Wilkinson said: “Humans often observe others’ emotional expressions and use the information to guide their own course of action.
“The results of this study demonstrate that dogs can acquire relevant information from emotional displays, match these with information about emotional expressions and consequences, and use this to predict the potential behaviour of others to inform their own decision-making.”
University of São Paulo’s Dr Natalia Albuquerque, said: “We found that dogs generally chose the human that had shown a positive expression and avoided the human that had shown a negative one.
“The available emotional information was more important when the dogs could not reach the food by themselves and had to get help from the humans, meaning that they were taking into consideration the emotions displayed by each person.
“This suggests that dogs can acquire information from emotional expressions, infer some form of emotional state and use this when making decisions. This is complex as they need to infer the emotional states of people from representations they have generated and stored in their memory and use it in a new context.”
The full research article – ‘Dogs can infer implicit information from human emotional expressions’ – was published in the journal, Animal Cognition.