Original Paper

Animal Cognition

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 83-94

First online:

Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour

  • Borbála TurcsánAffiliated withDepartment of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd UniversityResearch Centre for Natural Sciences, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Email author 
  • , Flóra SzánthóAffiliated withDepartment of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd University
  • , Ádám MiklósiAffiliated withDepartment of Ethology, Eötvös Loránd UniversityMTA–ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group
  • , Enikő KubinyiAffiliated withMTA–ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group

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Research using the two-object choice paradigm showed that dogs prefer the object associated with the happy human emotion. However, they provided rather ambiguous results regarding the negative emotions. We assumed that differences between the dogs’ and owners’ interest towards the ‘negative’ object might be responsible for this. In our experiment, dogs observed their owner expressing different emotions towards two uniform plastic bottles. Five dog groups were tested based on the condition they received: (1) happy versus neutral, (2) happy versus disgust, (3) neutral versus disgust and (4–5) neutral vs neutral, as control groups. Contrary to previous studies using free choice paradigm, we used a task-driven approach. After the demonstration, the dogs had to retrieve one object to the owner. The dogs’ performance in the two neutral–neutral groups did not differ from the chance level. In contrast, subjects were able to distinguish between the happy and neutral expression of the owner: they both approached and fetched the ‘happy’ object. In the happy–disgusted and neutral–disgusted groups, the dogs approached the bottles randomly, suggesting that they found the ‘disgusting’ and ‘neutral’ objects equally attractive. Nevertheless, the dogs preferentially retrieved the object marked with the relatively more positive emotion (happy or neutral) to the owner in both conditions. Our results demonstrate that dogs are able to recognize which is the more positive among two emotions, and in a fetching task situation, they override their own interest in the ‘disgusting’ object and retrieve what the owner prefers.


Emotion recognition Dog Cooperation Disgust Happiness