Empathy Plays Big Role in Reading Your Dog's Face

Empathic people may be more likely to interpret dogs’ facial expressions and emotions more intensely than less empathic people, based on the findings of a new study by researchers at the University of Helsinki and Aalto University in Finland.

The study investigated how empathy — the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences — and other psychological factors affect how people interpret the facial images of dogs and humans. The findings reveal for the first time that human empathy plays a strong role in a person’s attempt to interpret dogs’ facial expressions, and therefore their emotional state.

Based on previous findings, the researchers knew that people with higher emotional empathy tend to evaluate other people’s facial expressions more quickly, accurately and often more intensely. However, Kujala notes that it is possible that they may be over-interpreting the expressions of dogs.

“Empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of dogs’ facial expressions, but defining the accuracy of such assessments is currently unreliable,” said postdoctoral researcher Dr. Miiamaaria Kujala.

“Empathy affected assessments of dogs’ facial expressions even more than previous experience of dogs, probably because the face is a biologically important stimulus for humans. Our earlier studies have showed, however, that when considering the entire body language of dogs, previous experience of dogs increases in importance.”

For decades, researchers have been studying how social animals communicate with one another through their facial expressions. Darwin was able to detect similarities in mammals’ expressions, but not until recently have researchers begun to understand similarities between the emotional expressions of different species.

The Animal Mind research group at the University of Helsinki has previously demonstrated that dogs are clearly able to recognize threatening facial expressions in both humans and other dogs.

“They gazed intensively at threatening dogs, but quickly looked away from threatening humans,” said Kujala. “Also, human subjects were good at recognizing the threatening expressions of dogs and considered them much more intense than similar human expressions.”

In contrast, people rated the happy expressions of humans more intensely than they did the happy expressions of dogs. The researchers suggest that this may be due to the tendency to consider the faces of one’s own species generally more pleasant.

Still, it may be a more difficult task to recognize happiness in dogs based on their facial expressions alone — even experienced trainers tend to interpret the happy expressions of dogs as happier than non-experts do.

Source: University of Helsinki

Woman looking at her dog photo by shutterstock.