What Dog’s Think: Reading Dogs’ Emotions Isn’t innate, It’s Learned

October 26, 2020

Interpreting Indicators

What your dog is  thinking has been the topic of countless movies, shows, comic strips, and books. Their body language can give us cues, but it might not be as natural as we think to interpret their communication. Recent research shows we can’t exactly read a dog’s emotions automatically. We learn this skill with experience and others passing along their knowledge.

Study’s Structure 

Federica Amici of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Juliane Bräuer of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History led an interesting study. This article explains how the study was structured: “Researchers collected photographs of dogs, chimpanzees, and humans displaying either happy, sad, angry, neutral, or fearful emotions as substantiated by the photographers. They then recruited 89 adult participants and 77 child participants.” 

Research’s Findings 

The research found: “Other than anger and happiness, the children in the study were not good at identifying dog emotions. They recognized anger and happiness more reliably in dogs than in chimps, but otherwise identified dog emotions as poorly as they did chimpanzee emotions, suggesting that the ability to understand how dogs are feeling is not innate.” 

Tell Tail Signs

In this video, you can see how dogs wear emotions on their sleeve, er, tail. Tail lowered? They might be anxious. Tail up? You’ve captured their interest. But did you know the direction dogs wag their tail can also be telling? A study reported, “They wagged on the right when they saw things they’d like to approach, and on the left when they saw things they’d want to avoid.” The explanation is that one brain hemisphere controls approach responses and the other controls   withdrawal responses, thus the tail wags that direction in coordination.

Importance of Training 

While it is important to train a dog to interact with people appropriately, it’s also essential to teach children how to approach dogs and how to interpret dog’s body language. While children might think every dog in existence is thrilled to see them and wants to play, it’s key to teach kids that not every dog is friendly (or maybe the owner would rather they not interact). First off, ask the owner if they may pet the dog. Next, approach the dog slowly. Offer your hand for the dog to smell. If the dog calmly comes forward, it’s okay to pet. But take care to avoid the dog’s mouth. Also explain a dog’s ears and tail are sensitive and should never be pulled. 

Safety First 

This American Veterinary Medical Association article entitled “Teaching Children How to Prevent Dog Bites” has some excellent information to share with your kids. Nobody wants to think about a dog attack, but this post gives valuable advice: “Teach children to confidently, quietly walk away if they’re confronted by an aggressive dog. Instruct them to stand still if a dog goes after them, then take a defensive position. It often helps to tell them to ‘be a tree:’ stand quietly, with their hands low and clasped in front of them, remain still and keep their head down as if looking at their feet. If they are knocked down, teach them to cover their head and neck with their arms and curl into a ball.” 

Kid’s Best Friend

Just as dogs can be man’s best friend, they can be kids’ best buds, too. Discussing and showing safe behavior with dogs can ensure a lifetime of friendship.

Come. Stay. Heal.

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