How Do We Recognize Dog Emotions?

Ayesha Azeem ‘23

Figure 1. Convergent evolution suggests that humans and dogs have adapted and changed their facial expressions in order to reciprocate understanding. 

We humans are very complex creatures. When we spend a lot of time in close association with a species, we tend to treat them as if they are humans as well, and we can decipher their emotions clearly. With the expression of emotions, we can communicate our motivations, responses and needs to others. Recognizing animals’ emotions can be beneficial, as it may help us to perceive the distinction between an ally and a predator. Additionally, evolution favors that when two species spend a significant amount of time with each other in close association, each species benefits from emotional recognition. While humans can recognize aggressive barks at strangers and other auditory signals, dogs also use a wide range of body and facial expressions that communicate valuable information. Researcher Federica Amici and team conducted a study in which they investigated the human ability to recognize dog facial expressions associated with emotions. 

In this experiment, participants of different ages and personal and cultural experiences were recruited. The participants had varying levels of experience with dogs: some of the participants were dog owners, while others grew up in an environment where dogs were highly integrated in human lives. The researchers recruited individuals from European and Muslim backgrounds, as both cultures treat dogs differently. While European societies tend to treat dogs as part of the family, Muslims traditionally tend to avoid integrating dogs as part of the family because they are seen as impure. Participants were shown pictures of dogs, humans and chimpanzees with happy, fearful, angry, sad and neutral expressions. The subjects then assessed the emotion shown and provided context. 

The study results indicate that the ability to recognize dog emotions is mainly developed with experience. Children’s ability to recognize dog emotions was similar regardless of background, and they had more trouble recognizing dog emotions than human emotions. In adults, the ability to recognize dog emotions strongly depended on their experience with dogs, but also on emotions. Those who had more dog experiences deciphered dog emotions better. However, adults also recognized all dog emotions worse than human emotions (except for anger). The European participants had an easier time deciphering dog emotions than Muslims, resulting from their increased familiarity with dogs as pets. Thus, the study presents a possible association between cultural background (in this case, European and Muslim) and the ability to recognize dog emotions. Further studies should attempt to investigate other cultures and the effect of cultural background on ability. 


  1. F. Amici, et al., The ability to recognize dog emotions depends on the cultural milieu in which we grow up. Scientific Reports, (2019). doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-52938-4
  2. Image retrieved from:

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