Humans can read the emotional expression in dog's faces

Humans can read the emotional expression in dog’s faces more accurately than they can chimpanzees, according to new study

  • A new study tested people’s ability to accurately interpret facial expressions
  • Researchers used pictures of dogs, chimpanzees, and other humans
  • They showed the pictures to people from dog friendly countries
  • People from countries less friendly to dogs were also shown the images
  • It was easiest for people from dog friend cultures to identify dog expressions

Dogs have lived alongside humans for at least 40,000 years, but proximity doesn’t automatically lead to understanding.

According to a new study from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the key to understanding dogs largely depends on where you’re from. 

The researchers, led by Federica Amici, a behavioral ecologist, tested 89 adults and 77 children from distinct cultural backgrounds to test their ability to read the facial expression of dogs.

New research from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology shows that adults from dog-friendly cultures are able to identify facial expressions in dogs with a greater degree of accuracy than those from cultures less friendly to dogs

Specifically, subjects were taken from Europe, where dogs are considered close family companions that live indoors alongside humans, and Muslim-majority countries where dogs more commonly live outside and aren’t necessarily thought of as surrogate family members. 

Researchers showed the test subjects photographs of dogs, chimpanzees, and humans and asked them to distinguish expressions of anger, happiness, sadness, fear, and neutral expressions. 

The researchers found that while all subjects were generally able to distinguish happiness and anger in dogs, people from more dog-friendly Europe were able to identify sadness, fear and neutrality in dog facial expressions with higher accuracy than people from Muslim-majority countries.

Significantly, children performed roughly the same regardless of cultural background, and outside of happiness and anger, they were unable to accurately identify dog emotions based solely on facial expressions.

While all test subjects were able to identify anger and happiness in dogs with roughly the same accuracy, fear, sadness, and neutral expressions were much harder to identify for people from cultures deemed less friendly to dogs

‘These results are noteworthy because they suggest that it is not necessarily direct experience with dogs that affects humans’ ability to recognize their emotions, but rather the cultural milieu in which humans develop,’ Amici said in a statement announcing the findings.

One interesting wrinkle is that children were more accurate in assessing the emotional expressions of dogs than they were chimpanzees, despite the fact that chimps and humans are one another’s closest genetic relatives.

While the role of facial expressions in human communication is well documented, it’s less clear what facial expressions mean to dogs.  

Indeed, dogs communicate in a variety of important ways that don’t involve facial expression, including body posture, tail position, ear position, and smell.

Children found it easier to identify facial expressions in dogs than they did in chimpanzees, in spite of the close genetic relationship between humans and chimps

A 2017 experiment from the University of Portsmouth found that dogs produced significantly more facial expressions when they knew they were being looked at by humans.

Moreover, they found that dogs facial expressions remained unchanged when they were looking at exciting pictures of food, but they tended to lift their eyebrows and widen their eyes when looking at humans. 

These findings suggest dog’s facial expressions might be a way of simply capturing a human’s attention.


A genetic analysis of the world’s oldest known dog remains revealed that dogs were domesticated in a single event by humans living in Eurasia, around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Dr Krishna Veeramah, an assistant professor in evolution at Stony Brook University, told MailOnline: ‘The process of dog domestication would have been a very complex process, involving a number of generations where signature dog traits evolved gradually.

‘The current hypothesis is that the domestication of dogs likely arose passively, with a population of wolves somewhere in the world living on the outskirts of hunter-gatherer camps feeding off refuse created by the humans.

‘Those wolves that were tamer and less aggressive would have been more successful at this, and while the humans did not initially gain any kind of benefit from this process, over time they would have developed some kind of symbiotic [mutually beneficial] relationship with these animals, eventually evolving into the dogs we see today.’

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