Does Experience Help People Recognize Emotion in Dogs?

People are better at recognizing fear in dogs if they have experience, study shows.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

In last week’s post about dogs’ responses to petting by familiar and unfamiliar people, we said dogs generally prefer to be petted in certain places, and people don’t always recognize the subtle signals that show when a dog is uncomfortable. This week, we’re looking at a study that investigates whether experience with dogs helps people to recognize canine emotions such as happiness and fear.

Experiences helps people recognize fear in dogs, study shows. Photo shows a Border Collie in the snow.
Photo: jadimages / Shutterstock
The internet survey was conducted by Michele Wan and colleagues at Columbia University, New York, and was completed by 2,163 participants. There were 16 short video clips of dogs, sometimes with people, in various situations. They were shown with no sound, so people could only use visual signals. Several different dog breeds and mixes were shown in the videos so that the results would not be due to specific dogs or breeds.

After each clip, participants were asked to say what emotion the dog was displaying, which body parts showed this, how difficult it was to tell, and how accurate they thought their answer was. The emotions they could choose from were happy, fearful, angry, sad and neutral.

In fact, amongst the sixteen videos there were nine that a group of experts in canine behaviour consistently rated as showing a fearful dog (4 videos) or a happy dog (5 videos). It is people’s opinions of these videos that are reported.

Participants were also asked about their previous dog ownership and experience. They were then categorized into groups. Those with low experience had never owned a dog and had little or no experience with them (7% of the participants). Owners had owned a dog at some point in their life (68% of the participants). The professional group had worked with dogs in a professional capacity for between one and nine years (14%) and the ‘professional 10+’ group had worked with dogs for over ten years (11% of participants).  Amongst the professionals, most worked in dog behaviour (e.g. training), but around 30% worked in some other capacity such as grooming.

When the dog was happy, participants had no difficulty in recognizing this, regardless of their level of experience. However, experienced participants were much more likely to recognize when a dog was fearful. These results still applied when the researchers took account of how likely people thought it was that a dog would experience happiness or fear (i.e. the experienced participants didn’t choose fear more often because they were more likely to think dogs could be fearful).

In addition, the results still held when they excluded people who had learnt about dog behaviour from books, lectures or classes – in other words, actual experience with dogs, rather than teaching about dogs, is enough to make a difference.

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There were also differences in the parts of the dog that people referred to. In general, the experienced participants used more body parts in making their decision, and were more likely to pay attention to the ears. This applied to both happy and fearful dogs. For fearful dogs, all participants found aspects of the face such as eyes, ears, mouth/tongue most useful. In contrast, for happy dogs, the legs/paws and tail were most useful. 

Finally, people were more confident of their decision about the happy dogs, and said they were easier to understand than the fearful dogs. Not surprisingly, the Low Experience group felt less accurate and found the questions more difficult than other participants. 

These results are especially interesting since some previous studies found that experience with dogs had no effect. One advantage to this study is that the videos were consistently rated by experts as showing canine fear or happiness, so we can be confident the dogs were displaying those emotions. The results do concur with studies of human emotions, which show that differences in experience have an effect on emotion perception. It’s also the case that for humans, happiness is easier to recognize than fear. This suggests the human brain may process information about emotions in a similar way for people and other species. 

An important implication is that learning how to recognize a fearful dog could help in dog bite prevention. Fearful dogs are a particular risk for biting, and yet many people were unable to recognize fear in a dog.

So, how can you tell if a dog is fearful? Signs to look for include a low tail, ears back and flat to the head, a frozen posture, crouched body position, shaking and panting. See how can I tell if my dog is afraid for more information (and some photos to practice on). If your dog is afraid, see eight tips to help fearful dogs feel safe

What canine features do you use to help you recognize doggy emotions?  

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:
Wan M, Bolger N, & Champagne FA (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23284765

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  1. This article was interesting,while it may be hard to sometimes detect the emotion of a dog learning the Biological perspective on their behavior may also depend on breed or genetics. All dogs do not react the same so knowing what to look for to putting a emotion with their action can be hard. I feel until your actually connected with the dog on a emotional level having it show you their reactions take time just like people.

  2. Tails, ears, corners of mouths and overall posture are particularly helpful to how I read dogs. My own preference so far seems to be for prick-eared dogs with curly or sickle tails -- maybe because they make their emotions so legible and more immediately accessible to me!

    So much of dog body language must be read in motion. I'm glad to hear that this study was conducted using videos, not just pictures.

    And pet owners, expecting pets to be happy-go-lucky creatures all the time, are definitely not taught how to look for signs of a fearful dog.

  3. As a previous dog owner myself, I can agree with the biological perspective of this post. I too have been able to recognize similar behaviors in dogs and humans. By reading their body language one is able to establish their emotion or behavior. For decades, scientists have been using animal cognition to interpret dog's and many other animal species's body language as an aide to read their emotions and behaviors. I fully agree with the author that being able to correctly interpret a dog's emotions should theoretically reduce negative encounters.

  4. I am intensely skeptical that these results tell the whole story, because the subject pool is not really representative. The number of subjects with little or no experience was small, and even of those it is likely that most had encountered a lot of dogs during their lives. In my experience, little children are often totally unable to read the emotions of dogs, especially if they are afraid of them. Also I have known several people from the Middle East (where pet dogs are almost unheard of) who are totally unable to perceive dog emotions.


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