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Why can some of us read a dog’s emotions better than others?

Bulldog runs happily with stick in its mouth dog-wow
© Pixabay

It's to do with upbringing, a study says; nothing to do with whether we own a dog. Where we come from is all important when it comes to reading a dog's mind.

By Nick Whittle , 8 Dec 2019

Research carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, suggests the “cultural milieu” of our upbringing is responsible for how well we understand dogs.

The findings of the research, commented on by Science Alert, contradict the voices of those who suggest our understanding of dogs is innate and caused by our co-habitation over the course of the last 30,000 years.

That's wrong, says lead researcher Federica Amici. Our ability to perceive a dog’s emotions is determined by where we grew up and the company we kept, regardless of whether or not we've owned a dog.

The Study

The study was carried out of 89 adults and 77 children; the children were aged five and six. The subjects came from a variety of backgrounds, and were either Muslim or non-Muslim Europeans.

Writes Science Alert, “Each participant was categorised depending on their culture's attitude toward dogs, as well as their own personal history of dog ownership.

“They were then shown a series of photographs, including dogs, chimps and humans, and asked to rate their happiness, sadness, anger or fear.”

Amici discovered that the children of the study recognised some of the basic canine emotions, but that more complex canine demands and temperamental signs were only recognised by the adults of the group.

That suggests knowing a dog's mind is an empirical task acquired by first-hand experience.

These results are noteworthy,” says Amici, “because they suggest that it is not necessarily direct experience with dogs that affects humans' ability to recognise their emotions, but rather the cultural milieu in which humans develop.”

Amici and her team concluded that the participants who grew up in a liberal and “dog-positive” culture were more able to recognise the emotions of a dog than those who grew up in a stricter and less dog-friendly environment.

In other words, if you spent your formative years in a country that embraced dog ownership you are more likely to have learned how to recognise various facets of a dog's personality.