Dogs know if you’re happy or mad, and that makes them special

Dogs know you're happy
CC BY 2.0 Cordelia Naumann/Flickr

New research reveals the first solid evidence that an animal (other than humans) can distinguish emotional expressions in another species.

Anyone who has ever lived with a pooch knows this: Dogs can tell the difference between a happy and an angry human. But can they really? Or is it just us humans anthropomorphizing our pets like we tend to do?

There has been no shortage of attempts to determine whether or not dogs can discriminate between our emotional expressions, but studies have turned up inconclusive. Until now, that is. New research published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology reveals that in their experiment, dogs were able to select the angry or happy face. The dogs learned to distinguish between facial expressions, and were able to transfer what they learned in training to new cues. And not only that, but they could do this with strangers.

"Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before," said Ludwig Huber, senior author and lead researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna's Messerli Research Institute.

The discovery represents the first solid evidence that an animal other than humans can discriminate between emotional expressions in another species, the researchers said.

"We expect to gain important insights into the extraordinary bond between humans and one of their favorite pets," Corsin Müller of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna said, "and into the emotional lives of animals in general."

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