Dogs can distinguish angry humans and try to placate them, a recent study featured in the journal PLOS ONE has shown.
The experiment was conducted by a team of Finnish scientists, led by Sanni Somppi, researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Department of Equine and Small Animal Medicine.
A total of 31 dogs belonging to 13 different breeds were trained so as to become acquainted with the task of closely observing a screen, while having their eye movements monitored by experts.
Afterwards, the actual trial was launched, and each canine was required to watch a series of photographs being shuffled using a home theater projector.
Each image was shown for 1.5 seconds, and depicted either a dog or a human being, experiencing one of 3 basic kinds of emotions (amiable, neutral and menacing).
As the canine subjects were looking at the photos, thermal infrared cameras were employed so as to determine where the dogs would concentrate their gaze the most, and which region of the face would initially spark their interest.
Scientists discovered that just like humans and other species of primates, dogs generally began by staring at the eyes of the human being or fellow canine whose photograph was being displayed. In addition, this was also the portion of the face that they tended to focus on the most.
What was interesting to researchers however was that the canine subjects didn’t remain transfixed by just one single feature. Instead, they searched for other facial clues that would reveal the emotions of the human beings or dogs they were looking at.
Again, similarly to the way human beings behave, dogs looked at several regions of the face (the mouth, the eyes, the nose etc.) in order to understand more precisely how the object of their attention was feeling.
For example, when presented with a photograph showing an angry canine, after observing the eyes, the dogs taking part in the experiment immediately switched their gaze to the mouth area, in order to confirm that the facial expression was indeed an ominous and forbidding one.
On the other hand, when having to look at angry humans, the canines preferred a much more subdued approach. What they basically did was to avert their eyes, and look the other way, probably in an effort to appease the individuals and defuse tension.
As scientists explain, this most likely stems from the fact that domesticated dogs have come to understand human beings and their emotions, therefore developing a trait known as cognitive empathy.
Even more, pups can now easily adapt to various facial expressions, displaying either submissiveness or friendliness depending the feelings they have just perceived and processed.
Successfully bonding with humans may have provided canines with an evolutionary advantage, given the fact that so many dogs nowadays are fed, looked after and even spoiled by their owners.
Turning into man’s best friend may not have been an easy endeavor, given how complex human emotions can be, but dogs can now reliably detect hostile attitudes as well as congenial moods, knowing when to step back and when to come closer.
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