You may have wondered if dogs have the ability to tell the difference between a happy or an angry face. If you have ever owned a dog, it is likely you've noticed them react differently to faces you make at them or when you experience different emotions. Science has now confirmed that our suspicions as dogs owners were correct, dogs can indeed tell the difference between happy and angry facial expressions.
Signs of a Dog Reacting to Facial Expressions
Since your dog can read your signals, they will react to your facial expressions. If you have an angry expression on your face, your dog may cower away in anticipation they will get in trouble, they may lower their ears or drop them to the sides, they might tilt their head to one side, out their tail down or between their legs. All of these signs suggest your dog know there is something wrong, you are angry, whether at them or something else, and they will react in a submissive and docile way.
On the other hand, your dog will react completely differently if they see a happy expression on your face. Your dog may wag their tail with joy and excitement, look alert, raise their ears, jump up at you, lick your face, howl or bark from excitement, or any other way your dog likes to signal they are happy and excited as well. These signs can vary from dog to dog depending on their individual personality.
- Raise ears
- Tail tucking
- Wag tail
- Jumping up
- Dropped Ears
- Acting Submissive
- Getting Excited
- Maintaining Eye Contact
History of Dogs Reading Human Facial Expressions
Even though we do not have a solid reasoning, it is not surprising that dogs have the ability to tell the difference between a happy and angry face in humans. Mos dogs spend all of their lives with humans, which gives them ample opportunity to learn and read their owner's facial cues.
According to some researchers, humans and dogs have established in incredibly close bond for many years throughout their domestication process. Through this process, dogs have been bred by humans to carry certain traits and one of those traits is the ability to read humans. It remains unclear how much was a learned trait and how much has to do with close human connection. Future studies will aim to answer how much a dog's ability to recognize human expressions has to do with the domestication process and spending time with humans.
Many dog owners report, and studies have confirmed, that when your dog is confronted with your angry face, their first response is to lick their lips. Next time you are angry and your dog is with you, check their initial reactions and see if they lick their lips in response to your furrowed brow!
Science Behind Dogs Telling The Difference Between Happy and Angry Faces
One group of dogs were only shown the top of the faces and the other half were only shown the bottom of the faces. They used a series of four different trails to confirm the dog's ability to tell the difference between happy and angry. They would present the dogs with either the same or the other half of the face shown to them in training, but with a novel face or the other half of the face used in the initial training.
The research found that dogs who were rewarded with a treat for picking out the happy face learned to tell the difference between a happy and angry face faster than those who got a treat for picking the angry face. The researchers state that this response is expected when a dog does indeed have the ability to tell an angry face is unpleasant.
Furthermore, they also found that dogs were able to select the correct face 70-80% of the time, which is above random chance. This means dogs can be trained to recognize different facial expressions but they can also take what they have been trained to do and transfer those skills to different cues.
Training Dogs to Recognize Happy and Angry Faces
However, if you want to train your dog to recognize happy and sad faces, you can work with them in the same way the researchers in Vienna trained and tested their dogs. You may want to train them in a more simplified way, though, so it is easier for you and your pup. For instance, instead of showing them only parts of the face, like the top or bottom, just show them the whole face.
You can start by printing out a few pictures of different faces with happy and angry expressions. When your dog picks the picture of the happy face, whether by touching it with their nose or looking directly at the picture, you should reward them with their favorite treat. Say a command like "happy face" to help them associate the smile/picture with happy facial expressions and treats. You can repeat this same process with the angry face pictures as well.
They key here is to teach them that angry and happy mean different things with verbal commands, but to also reward them with treats each time they correctly select the angry and happy face when you give them your command.