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Dogs Know When We're Happy or Sad, Even in Photos

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Originally posted on February 24, 2015.

Dog research always fascinates me. You could say I have a nose for it. As humans, we spend a lot of time with our canine friends: they share our homes and steal our hearts—and sometimes the food off our plates.

I’ve always loved dogs, and I couldn’t wait to get one of my own. Nearly eight years ago, I adopted Finnegan, a lovable yet slobbery Golden Retriever who regularly knocks over the trash can and cuddles with me and my wife. A year later we adopted his half-brother, Atticus, and doubled our fun. And our mischief.

From across the room, both dogs seem to suspect when we’re angry or happy. All they need is a peek at our body language and facial expressions. If you have a dog, you’ve likely noticed the same thing. But did you know that dogs also can tell the difference between happy and angry faces in photographs?

One study says so. A team of researchers trained dogs to discriminate between images of the same person making a happy or angry face. Twenty dogs were shown photos of faces side-by-side on a touchscreen. Half of the dogs were trained to touch images of happy faces; the other group was rewarded for choosing angry faces.

The dogs needed only a little training before they could choose the angry or happy face more often than would be expected by random chance. So, not only can dogs learn to interpret their owners’ facial expressions, but they can also perceive emotions in photographed strangers.

A cool wrinkle in the study was that the dogs were slow to associate an angry face with a reward. Perhaps they instinctually knew to stay away from angry people, making it hard for the dogs to think angry people were linked to anything positive?

I can’t wait to see how this line of research progresses. In the meantime, I’m going to go smile at my dogs.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”