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Smile - your dog knows how you are feeling

I've just got off the phone from Radio Scotland, discussing the latest research about dogs. This study, from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna's Messerli Research Institute showed that dogs can read our facial expressions.

This won't come as a surprise to anyone who's lived with a dog, as we know our dogs react to our different moods, and anyone who's tried to recall a dog when they're angry will know how impossible it is to fool a dog about how we're feeling. However, what is impressive about the dogs' behaviour in this research is that they can identify a happy mood and a grumpy mood just from an image of a face on a screen.

How many husbands could carry out the same task? But I digress...

You can read about the details of the research in the press release below, but for me the crucial thing about this research is that it has implications for how we live with our dogs and how we train our dogs. Firstly, this is a reminded of how visual dogs are, and when we try and train them using words alone, we make their life harder than it has to be. Attaching hand signals to commands aids our communication with our dogs. But there's more to it than that.

Buddy, my Labrador is a fairly bombproof dog who is laid back and takes training fairly light-heartedly. If I want him to do a "stay" at a distance from me - as I did when we took part in Safe and Sound displays in the main arena at Crufts - I have to hold up my palm to him, but I also have to have a very stern expression on my face that tells him I mean business and I really want him to stay.

By comparison, Rusty, our Border Collie, is a sensitive soul, and when I tried the same "stay" method with him, he ran to me and lay on his back at my feet. So I've learned that with Rusty, I must give the stay signal with a smile on my face so that he knows I am happy and he is doing what I am asking him to do.

Our dogs are watching and learning about us all the time - not just for that hour a week we're at the training class - and that's only natural since all good things come from us, so it's useful if they know when there best chance of a treat and a belly rub is. So when you read this fascinating research, ask yourself - if my dog isn't happy, is it because I'm not smiling enough?

Take care,
Julie xx

Press release: Dogs know that smile on your face

Dogs can tell the difference between happy and angry human faces, according to a new study in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on February 12. The discovery represents the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions in another species, the researchers say.

"We think the dogs in our study could have solved the task only by applying their knowledge of emotional expressions in humans to the unfamiliar pictures we presented to them," says Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

Previous attempts had been made to test whether dogs could discriminate between human emotional expressions, but none of them had been completely convincing. In the new study, the researchers trained dogs to discriminate between images of the same person making either a happy or an angry face. In every case, the dogs were shown only the upper or the lower half of the face. After training on 15 picture pairs, the dogs' discriminatory abilities were tested in four types of trials, including (1) the same half of the faces as in the training but of novel faces, (2) the other half of the faces used in training, (3) the other half of novel faces, and (4) the left half of the faces used in training.

The dogs were able to select the angry or happy face more often than would be expected by random chance in every case, the study found. The findings show that not only could the dogs learn to identify facial expressions, but they were also able to transfer what they learned in training to new cues.

"Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before," says Ludwig Huber, senior author and head of the group at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna's Messerli Research Institute.

What exactly those different meanings are for the dogs is hard to say, he adds, "but it appears likely to us that the dogs associate a smiling face with a positive meaning and an angry facial expression with a negative meaning." Müller and Huber report that the dogs were slower to learn to associate an angry face with a reward, suggesting that they already had an idea based on prior experience that it's best to stay away from people when they look angry.

The researchers will continue to explore the role of experience in the dogs' abilities to recognize human emotions. They also plan to study how dogs themselves express emotions and how their emotions are influenced by the emotions of their owners or other humans.

"We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favorite pets, and into the emotional lives of animals in general," Müller says.


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