Can Your Dog Read Your Emotions?

November 05, 2008 02:52 PM
by Shannon Firth
A new study reports that dogs use some of the same mechanisms as humans to interpret human expressions.
A new study from England’s University of Lincoln reports that dogs, like humans, look left toward the right-hand side of human faces, a mechanism known as “left gaze bias.” The experiment, led by Dr. Kun Guo, involved filming 17 dogs and their eye movements as they were shown images of people, monkeys, dogs and objects. Guo showed that dogs exhibit “left gaze bias” only when they looked at the images of human faces.

According to the New Scientist, Guo suggests that this behavior has been adapted after hundreds of years of living with humans, as a way to make sense of our emotions. The journal also noted that previous studies suggest the right side of the face may display emotions “more accurately and intensely” than the left.

What researchers found surprising, however, was that dogs continue to demonstrate a left gaze bias when shown upside down faces, while humans do not. It may be that the right side of a dog’s brain, which absorbs information from the opposite visual field, is better able to translate “human facial emotion” than the left. David Mills, Guo’s colleague, told the New Scientist, “The dogs can't shift this hard-wiring.”

Canine expert Adam Miklosi from Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, told the New Scientist he is skeptical of Guo and Mill’s conclusions: “Dogs may be able to recognise their owner’s face, but there is no evidence that they can recognise human facial emotion.”

A different study, reported in Jan. 2008, examined how capable humans are at determining dog’s emotions based on their barks. Hungarian scientists designed a software program that decodes the emotional reaction of the Mudi breed of dogs based on their growls, yelps and barks. However, the translation software, at 43 percent—compared with humans at 40 percent—was only slightly better at distinguishing a dog’s emotional state.
Csaba Molnar, from Eotvos University in Budapest, told the BBC he considered the experiment a success: “I would say that we proved there are very strong contextual differences between the barks, but that very long further work is needed to determine which emotional states and which characteristics belong to each (different breed).”

Molnar also told the BBC he thinks that future software could be used to analyze human communication.

Opinion & Analysis: Man’s best friend

The Guardian’s Dave Hill isn’t surprised by the news that dogs may be capable of understanding human moods. Since humans teach them tricks, pamper them and knit them “absurd items of clothing,” he writes, “It would be a big surprise if they hadn't learned the meaning of every raised eyebrow, encouraging smile or fretful frown.” Hill seems to find the tendency of owners to want animals to behave as humans do a little unsettling.

Related Topics: Facial expression recognition software; “The eyes have it”

In Feb. 2008, the Department of Artificial Intelligence of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid’s School of Computing (FIUPM), along with Madrid’s Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, made public a new facial expression recognition software that can interpret up to six emotions. The new technology may have significant implications for the gaming industry, such as allowing avatars in Second Life to express the emotions of their human players.
A University of Oklahoma neurology resident, Dr. Calin Prodan, explained to Psychology Today that our eyebrows, forehead and eye creases more accurately display our true emotions than the lower half of our face. In research studies, when participants looked at the upper portion of a person’s face, they were twice as accurate in interpreting emotions, specifically from the right brain—which processes information from the left visual field—then from the left brain. Eric Martin, a writer for Psychology Today, suggests, “If you don't trust that smile on the faces of your friends, you might want to keep a close left eye on them.”

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