Science

New Video! Dogs Know When We’re Happy. THANKS SCIENCE!

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Sorta transcript:

Scientists have discovered that dogs can tell if you’re happy or angry just by looking at your face! Every single dog owner who reads that headline immediately thinks, “no shit.” I thought that, too! Who hasn’t had a dog immediately start cowering when you’re angry, or come over and put a paw on your leg when you’re sad, or bring a toy to play with when you’re happy?

This could easily be spun into one of those “scientists waste public money and their own time” type of stories, but actually I think it’s a really great example of science that should be done.

It’s easy to project our thoughts and emotions on the animals we love, which is why there’s a market for things like pet psychics and music for cats.

There’s also a trend online of “dog shaming,” in which people take pics of their dogs admitting to the horrible things they do like eating the sofa or pooping in a shoe. There’s good evidence to suggest that dogs don’t feel shame – and even if they do feel shame, that’s probably not the emotion they’re conveying when you walk into the room to see garbage strewn across the floor. According to a 2009 study, they cower and mope because their human is being loud and angry, and that’s upsetting.

We need the scientific method for exactly this kind of thing, things that seem obvious but are really more complex than we think because we’re humans and our brains are always tricking us.

In this case, researchers gave dogs treats for distinguishing between pictures of angry and happy faces. They found that most dogs could figure out the difference, but the dogs trained to point out happy faces were quicker to do so compared to the dogs pointing out angry faces, suggesting that dogs are more interested in approaching happy humans compared to angry ones.

The researchers say they want to continue this research by seeing if it would also work with wolves. They’re looking for volunteers to approach wolves in the wild looking either angry or happy. If you live near any packs of wolves, feel free to be a citizen scientist and go out there with your chosen emotion and then report back to the researchers on what happens.

Front page featured image is our very own Surly Amy’s Rocket!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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13 Comments

  1. If memory serves, I’v read (or listed to a podcast) that says dogs can outperform chimps in this area, and they can also understand where we are gazing, (i.e. we can look or point at something and say go fetch, and the dog understands we are pointing at that object) wheres a Chimp cannot.

  2. @4tune8chance — yes, I’m certain I’ve seen those two findings as well, understanding human facial expressions and following a pointed finger, better than chimps. Of course, chimps lack the 80,000 years of living alongside us, so they’re at an immediate disadvantage there.

    My Gordon barks at Kublai Khan, every single time there’s a close up of his face on Marco Polo. No matter if he’s happy or sad. She also barks at his Chinese son, Jingim, 3/4 of the time. And Jingim is pretty much always upset.

    As for shame….I will absolutely concede that if science says dogs have none, that science may or may not be correct (how’s THAT for equivocation)……but, I have seen THAT LOOK on my dogs faces before I ever got mad. I come home, they look ashamed, I then start to investigate why. When I find the eaten Ferragamo loafer or the poop in the bedroom, I know better than to raise a fuss, because in theory a good owner never criticizes a dog for anything that isn’t happening right now. And sure, we should be wary of anthropomorphizing our dogs’ emotions and thoughts and behaviors….but at the same time, we wouldn’t have co-evolved over 80,000 years without a few cues that BOTH SIDES can perceive. So, I mean, if we agree that they are attuned to our facial cues, isn’t it pretty obvious that the reverse must be true as well? Otherwise, we’d all go out obeying Ms. Watson’s advice to frolic with wolves, not noticing that their faces didn’t seem all that welcoming.

      1. Our old beagle knew full well that when got caught dumping the garbage, all he had to do was howl like he was being murdered and my sister would run to his rescue so he wouldn’t get disciplined. You didn’t even have to get the newspaper. As soon as he realized he was caught he’d start howling.

        1. “Get the newspaper”? I really hope your sister wasn’t hitting the dog with a newspaper. (Don’t tell me! It was totally just a gentle wack! It’s still hitting a dog, which is not how to train or discipline them.) In fact, your sister probably trained him to howl so he could avoid getting hit.

  3. I used to wave the newspaper at him. But that really doesn’t work with beagles. She would just yell at him, and he would keep doing whatever it was and ignore her. I suspect her ex-husband used to beat him, and that’s probably where he learned it.

    1. I’m still not understanding your original comment, then, because your follow-up comments seem to indicate that the dog learned to howl when he did something he knew he shouldn’t because he was afraid he would get beat. That doesn’t have to do anything at all with shame. Unless that was your actual point, but it doesn’t read that way. That’s fear. Straight-up fear of getting beat.

      Not trying to say you’re at fault, but um, yeah, no, still not seeing the “dogs feel shame/guilt” connection.

        1. ;)

          In all seriousness, positive reinforcement is the only thing that works on dogs. And nope, that does not include yelling (I mean obviously we humans aren’t perfect and you’re not going to harm the dog with occasional yelling if you’re having an off day, but don’t expect it to do anything except scare or confuse the dog).

          1. It was originally an expansion of my misreading of your point. I was thinking you meant they showed shame and guilt to get out of trouble. Don’t ask me how I misread your point, as you were pretty clear.

            He understood the newspaper because he’d been hit with it before. Like I said, it didn’t work, and nothing else I tried did, so I put a child lock on the cabinet to keep him out of the trash. He spent the whole first night pawing at the cabinet, then got on the dining room table and ate all the job applications I’d filled out. He kept trying almost daily until he was about 12. Talking with other beagle owners this seems pretty typical.

            I can’t think of any positive reinforcement that will discourage him from doing something he has his heart set on doing. But I’m open to suggestions for the next one.

          2. Sometimes all you can do is work to keep them away from temptation, so that seems like a perfect solution. I have a soft spot for dogs, and it just REALLY bothers me when people discipline them incorrectly, or “punish” them, especially with any sort of hitting, or regular yelling. I appreciate your response. You sound like a fine dog parent and I’m sure he’s very happy. :)

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