A new study has revealed that animals, namely dogs, read facial expressions much like humans do.
Many believe that their pets are especially empathetic, that they have the ability to calm us when we are feeling stressed, tend to our emotions when we are upset and celebrate along with us when we are feeling triumphant. According to research published in PLoS One by the University of Helsinki, these reactions are indeed accurate and even more so are an exciting breakthrough in understanding the relationship between animals and humans.
The research team realised that rather than picking up on emotions, your dog is actually reading your expressions to determine your mood, which is “the first evidence of emotion-related gaze patterns in a non-primate animal.”
Results indicate that dogs are looking to our eyes to judge our emotions which is different to how they judge other dogs using the whole face. Dogs also respond differently to humans, as according to the study, they are more likely to turn away from a human face as opposed to a threatening dog’s face.
The study’s lead researcher, Sanni Somppi, says, “The tolerant behavior strategy of dogs toward humans may partially explain the results. Domestication may have equipped dogs with a sensitivity to detect the threat signals of humans and respond to them with pronounced appeasement signals.”
Researchers from the University of Mexico have demonstrated the emotional link between dogs and humans in further experiments using an MRI scanner.
Seven dogs were trained to remain still, awake and unrestrained, preparing them for the four-month study. The group included five border collies, a labrador and a golden retriever from families from the area surrounding the University.
The study involved analysing the dogs’ electrical brain activity while they were shown pictures of different human facial expressions. What was discovered goes some way to highlighting just how unique and highly adaptable dogs are. The results from the study showed that the area of the brain active in dogs when they viewed human facial expressions, were the same areas triggered in humans when “reading and understanding facial cues”, Bradley Smith at the Central Queensland University.
It is unlikely that we will ever really know “whether dogs perceive the same way as humans do”, unless we are somehow able to share an expressive language. However, what this study has confirmed is that thousands of years of domestication and working with various species has allowed us the opportunity to see how dogs have become highly attuned to us.
As Bradley Smith explains, “breeds like border collies … and hunting dogs that work alongside people, that have been trained to work with us, they’re the ones that are really good at paying attention and following our cues because that’s what we designed them to do.”
As Henry David Thoreau once said, “The language of friendship is not words but meanings.”