As anyone who’s ever had to scold their dog for stealing food off a plate or jumping onto that oh-so-tempting forbidden sofa can attest, dogs are pretty good at understanding what we’re saying to them — at least when it suits them.
Research has also shown that dogs are able to understand some aspects of human communication, perhaps because throughout history we’ve used dogs for their ability to respond to our commands. Words, hand signs and gestures, tone of voice and facial expression — it seems that dogs have the ability to understand them all. But what about human understanding of dogs?
Federica Amici from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and colleagues ask just that in their latest piece of research, published in Scientific Reports. First, the team recruited participants with a variety of experiences with dogs and who grew up in a variety of cultures, each with their own cultural attitude towards the animals. Parts of Europe, for example, have generally dog-positive cultures: people consider their dogs to be part of the family, and they live inside the house. In Muslim-majority countries, on the other hand, dogs live outdoors and are not considered to be family members.
The researchers therefore recruited 88 adult and 77 child participants from four demographics: non-Muslim European dog-owners and non-Muslim European non-owners; Muslim non-owners from countries with a majority Islam population but who had lived in Europe for at least three years and Muslim non-owners living in a Muslim country. Regardless of demographic, there were a range of attitudes towards dogs amongst participants.
Participants were then shown facial photographs of 20 dogs, 20 chimpanzees and 20 humans, all displaying various different emotions — happiness, sadness, anger and fear — or a neutral expression, and rated how much each picture represented each emotion. They were also asked about the context in which each photo was taken — did they think a dog was playing with a trusted friend, for example, or was it about to attack someone?
Results suggested that although some ability to recognise dog emotions exists from early on in life, it is largely a skill we acquire through experience. The children’s ability to recognise emotions was similar across the board: experience with dogs, or growing up in a culture receptive to them, did not have much of an impact on how well children performed in the task.
But in adults, cultural experience played a large role. Whether or not they owned dogs, participants who had grown up in a European, dog-positive culture were far better at recognising dog emotions than those who had grown up in a Muslim country (even if these participants had later moved to Europe). This pattern of results only held for dogs, too: all groups performed equally well when it came to assessing chimpanzee emotions. As you might expect, both adult and child participants were able to recognise human emotions better than they were dog emotions.
“These results are noteworthy because they suggest that it is not necessarily direct experience with dogs that affects humans’ ability to recognize their emotions, but rather the cultural milieu in which humans develop,” Amici says.
Interestingly, all groups performed better if asked to recognise the context of images rather than asked to name the emotions outright, suggesting that our ability to interpret emotions may rely on the cues we get from any given situation.
The focus of the research was somewhat narrow. Only a select few cultural groups were involved in the study, and it’s unclear whether the findings can be generalised to European and Muslim groups more broadly, as cultural attitudes can be complex and nuanced. Pictures of dogs only depicted those with a “German shepherd-like face”, meaning results may differ with other breeds and face types, and there are many people who have different experiences with dogs — non-owners who are experts, for example.
But studying how experiential factors influence our recognition of animal emotions could be one strand in a further examination of cultural differences in emotion recognition. And it might just help you understand your own pet better, too.