24 February, 2015
So you think you know your dog. But how well does your dog know you? She probably recognizes you when she sees you. But can a dog tell by simply looking at you whether you have a happy or an angry expression on your face? Researchers in Austria have taught pet dogs to know the difference.
Dogs are very mindful of sound. When dog owners shout or speak in a strong, harsh voice, dogs often act guilty and quietly move away from the area.
Recently, researchers found that dogs can look at our faces, and tell the difference between a smile and a frown. The animals were able to recognize a look of approval from one of disapproval.
Researchers at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna performed a series of experiments. They taught dogs to recognize facial expressions. They showed the dogs two pictures of either the upper or lower half of a person's face. On one picture, the person looked happy. The other appeared angry.
The dogs were then shown images of the eyes or mouths of people they had never seen before. They were also shown the left half of the faces used in training.
Corsin Muller led the study.
"We were essentially speaking, do they realize that smiling eyes have the same meaning as a smiling mouth, or angry eyes have the same meaning as an angry mouth? And it turned out that they really did perform very well in these probe trials. Once they had learned the initial discrimination, they could spontaneously, immediately choose the correct one also in the probe trials with the normal stimuli."
Once the dogs learned to recognize which image was happy or angry, they could easily identify the same expressions in pictures of any face.
Corsin Muller says future studies will try to show whether dogs can learn the meaning of facial expressions -- for example, whether a frown shows that someone is angry.
"What we can say with our study is that they can discriminate them, that they can tell these ones are different. But what we cannot be sure of at this point is what exact meaning they are associating with these different expressions."
"Seems of course likely that they would associate some positive meaning with the smiley face and they would associate some rather negative meaning with the angry face. But what exactly they are associating with these expressions we cannot know at this point."
In the experiments, researchers found the dogs were slower to link a reward, or prize, with recognition of the angry face. This suggested that dogs had an idea people with angry faces were best avoided.
Corsin Muller says canine investigators are also interested in finding out whether wild wolves can be trained to recognize human facial expressions.
The researchers' findings were published in the journal Current Biology. They provide the first solid evidence that humans are not the only species that can read the body language of another species.
I'm Marsha James.
VOA's Jessica Berman prepared this report. Marsha James wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
probe - n., a careful examination or investigation of something
stimulus – n., something that causes something else to happen, develop, or become more active
avoid – v., to stay away from (someone or something)