How accurately are you reading your dog's expressions?

Story highlights

  • Dogs are very skilled at reading humans' faces, but is the reverse true?
  • Researchers are trying to identify all the expressions a dog's face can make

Dogs, as anyone who's ever shared a home with one knows, are often uncannily adept at reading human emotions. Most dog owners have some story or another of a time their pet just seemed to know that they were feeling sad and were in need of a good cuddle. Consider Zeus, a small fluffball who noted his owner's tears and — according to his owner's telling — brought her an odd little gift to cheer her up.

Some recent studies are now providing empirical evidence to support these sorts of owner anecdotes. Dogs really do seem to be especially skilled at picking up on what people are feeling; one study published earlier this year even suggests that dogs can recognize a person's emotions by looking at his or her facial expressions. And, really, why shouldn't they be able to do so? Humans and dogs have co-evolved over many thousands of years (some theorize that the human-canine bond began 16,000 years ago; others say it's more like 30,000). It makes sense that during that time, we'd have established some form of cross-species communication. As the studies are piling up, it seems like a huge piece of that common language are our expressions — that is, our ability to read the emotions written on each others' faces.
      Dogs, at least, are uncommonly skilled at reading people's faces. But how skilled are people at reading the faces of dogs? In recent years, a handful of researchers have begun an attempt to increase human understanding of that shared language, by improving the accuracy with which people read dogs' facial expressions. You may have heard of the Facial Action Coding System, a project that began in earnest in the late 1970s to taxonomize all the expressions a human face can make. This is like that, only for dogs. "The literature so far is about dogs understanding human expressions," Juliane Kaminski of the University of Portsmouth told Science of Us. "We're sort of turning that around."