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Can We Identify Canine Facial Expressions?

Clinician's Brief (Capsule)

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The ability to interpret canine facial expressions could facilitate greater ease and safety when working closely with dogs. This study was performed to determine whether humans could identify canine facial displays from photographs.

One well-trained police dog served as the model, and 10 photographs were produced for each of 6 human-associated emotions (ie, happy, sad, surprise, disgust, anger, fear, neutrality) evoked by stimuli (eg, ball, verbal reprimand, bitter medication). In the study’s first phase, 3 behavior experts confirmed the accuracy of the emotion displayed in the photographs by ranking them. The top-ranked photographs were used in the second phase, examining whether experienced and inexperienced subjects could judge the expected emotional states and identify the conditions under which the photographs were taken.
Results indicated that human ability to identify communicative signaling in canine facial expressions was above chance responding, with little difference between experience levels. Most subjects consistently identified happiness, sadness, anger, and fear in the appropriate photos; surprise and disgust proved more difficult. Experienced individuals performed well in identifying the behaviorally defined situations but were worse than inexperienced individuals at identifying anger.


Although at first glance this article might seem esoteric to day-to-day practice, it actually offers us worthwhile first insights into how we assess and interpret our patients. While the emotions researchers assigned to the contexts may not accurately describe the dog’s motivation, both experienced and inexperienced subjects interpreted most emotions consistently. Drawing from other facial communication studies with humans and primates, it is likely we are noticing nuances in a dog’s facial muscle tension when we interpret their facial expressions. When working with dogs, we take in other signals, body movements, and postures. Nonetheless, what we focus on as we observe animals reveals our similarities to other species in how we interpret and communicate emotions.—Vint Virga, DVM, DACVB


Classifying dogs’ (Canis familiaris) facial expressions from photographs. Bloom T, Friedman H. BEHAV PROCESSES 96:1-10, 2013.

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