Animal Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 373–385 | Cite as

Dogs’ comprehension of referential emotional expressions: familiar people and familiar emotions are easier

  • I. MerolaEmail author
  • E. Prato-Previde
  • M. Lazzaroni
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
Original Paper


Dogs have been shown to discriminate between human facial expressions, and they seem to use human emotional communication to regulate their behaviour towards an external object/situation. However, it is still not clear (1) whether they just respond to the emotional message received with a corresponding increase/decrease in their level of activation or whether they perceive that the emotional message refers to a specific object, (2) which emotional message they use to modify their behaviour (i.e. whether they are following the positive message or avoiding the negative one) and (3) whether their familiarity with the informant has an effect on the dogs’ behaviour. To address these issues, five groups of dogs were tested in two experiments. The first group observed the owner delivering two different emotional messages (happiness and fear) towards two identical objects hidden behind barriers, and the second group observed the owner delivering the same emotional messages but with no-objects present in the room. The third and the fourth groups observed the owner delivering a happy versus a neutral, and a negative versus a neutral emotional message towards the hidden objects. Finally, the fifth group observed a stranger acting like the owner of the first group. When the owner was acting as the informant, dogs seemed to be capable of distinguishing between a fearful and happy emotional expression and preferentially chose to investigate a box eliciting an expression of happiness rather than of fear or neutrality. Dogs, however, seemed to have greater difficulty in distinguishing between the fearful and neutral emotional messages delivered by the owner and between the happy and fearful expressions delivered by the stranger. Results suggest that dogs have learned to associate their owners’ positive emotional messages to positive outcomes, and hence use their communicative messages to guide their actions. However, negative emotional messages and those delivered by strangers are not as clear to dogs.


Dogs Emotions Referential communication Social referencing Stranger Owner 



This research was supported by funds from the Università di Milano to Sarah Marshall-Pescini and Emanuela Prato-Previde and a doctoral grant from the same University to Isabella Merola. We would like to thank all the owners and their dogs that participated as volunteers. This research complies with the current Italian laws on animal welfare.

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (WMV 140000 kb)


  1. Adachi I, Kuwahata H, Fujita K (2007) Dogs recall their owner’s face upon hearing the owner’s voice. Anim Cogn 10:17–21PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Buttelmann D, Tomasello M (2013) Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food? Anim Cogn 16:137–145. doi: 10.1007/s10071-012-0560-4 PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. de Rosnay M, Cooper PJ, Tsigaras N, Murray L (2006) Transmission of social anxiety from mother to infant: an experimental study using a social referencing paradigm. Behav Res Ther Engl 44:1164–1165Google Scholar
  4. Deputte BL, Doll A (2011) Do dogs understand human facial expressions? J Vet Behav 6:78–79CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Feinman S, Lewis M (1983) Social referencing at ten months: a second-order effect of infants responses to strangers. Child Dev 54:878–887PubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Feiring C, Lewis M, Starr MD (1984) In direct effects and infants’ reaction to strangers. Dev Psychol 20:485–491CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Field T, Woodson R, Greenberg R, Cohen D (1982) Discrimination and imitation of facial expression by neonates. Science 218:179–181PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fukuzawa M, Mills DS, Cooper JJ (2005) The effect of human command phonetic characteristics on auditory cognition in dogs (Canis familiaris). J Comp Psyc 119:117–120CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hare B, Tomasello M (2005) Human-like social skills in dogs? Trends Cogn Sci 9:439–444PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hare B, Brown M, Williamson C, Tomasello M (2002) The domestication of social cognition in dogs. Science 298:1634–1636PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hatfield E, Cacioppo JT, Rapson RL (1993) Emotional contagion. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Holm S (1979) A simple sequential rejective multiple test procedure. Scand J Stat 6:65–70Google Scholar
  13. Horn L, Range F, Huber L (2012) Dogs’ attention towards humans depends on their relationship, not only in social familiarity. Anim Cogn. doi: 10.1007/s10071-012-0584-9 Google Scholar
  14. Hornik R, Risenhoover N, Gunnar M (1987) The effects of maternal positive, neutral and negative affective communication on infant responses to new toys. Child Dev 58:937–944CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kaminski J, Neumann M, Bräuer J, Call J, Tomasello M (2011) Domestic dogs communicate to request and not to inform. Anim Behav 82(4):651–658CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lakatos G, Soproni F, Doka A, Miklósi Á (2009) A comparative approach to dogs (Canis familiaris) and human infants comprehension of various forms of pointing gestures. Anim Cogn 12:621–631PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lakatos G, Gácsi M, Topál J, Miklósi Á (2011) Comprehension and utilisation of pointing gestures and gazing in dog–human communication in relatively complex situations. Anim Cogn 15:201–213PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Marshall-Pescini S, Prato-Previde E, Valsecchi P (2011) Are dogs (Canis familiaris) mislead more by the owners than by the strangers in a food choice task? Anim Cogn 14:137–142PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012a) Social referencing in do-owner dyads? Anim Cogn 15:175–185PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Merola I, Prato-Previde E, Marshall-Pescini S (2012b) Dogs’ social referencing towards owners and strangers. PLoS One 7(10):e47653PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Miklósi A, Kubinyi E, Topál J, Gácsi M, Virányi Z, Csányi V (2003) A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr Biol 13:763–766PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V (2004) Comparative social cognition: what can dogs teach us? Anim Behav 67:995–1004CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Morisaki A, Takaoka A, Fujita K (2009) Are dogs sensitive to the emotional state of humans? J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res 4:49CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Moses LJ, Baldwin DA, Rosicky JG, Tidball G (2001) Evidence for referential understanding in the emotions domain at twelve and eighteen months. Child Dev 72:718–735PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Mumme DL, Fernald A, Herrera C (1966) Infants’ responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Dev 67:3219–3237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Nagasawa M, Murai K, Mogi K, Kikusui T (2011) Dogs can discriminate smiling faces from blank expression. Anim Cogn 14:525–533PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Nelson CA (1987) The recognition of facial expressions in the first two years of life: mechanisms of development. Child Dev 58:889–909PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Nelson NL, Russell JA (2011) Preschoolers’ use of dynamical facial, bodily and vocal cues to emotion. J Exp Child Psychol 110:52–61PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Pettersson H, Kaminski J, Herrmann E, Tomasello M (2011) Understanding of human communicative motives in domestic dogs. App Anim Behav Sci 133:235–245CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Racca A, Guo K, Meints K, Mills D (2012) Reading faces: differential lateral gaze bias in processing canine and human facial expressions in dogs and 4-year-old children. PLoS One 7(4):e36076. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036 PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Repacholi BM (1998) Infants’ use of attentional cues to identify the referent of another person’s emotional expression. Dev Psychol 34:1017–1025PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Savolainen P, Zhang YP, Luo J, Lundeberg J, Leitner T (2002) Genetic evidence for an East Asian origin of domestic dogs. Science 298:1610–1613PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Scheider L, Grassmann S, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2011) Domestic dogs use contextual information and tone of voice when following a human pointing gesture. PLoS One 6(7):e21676. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021676 PubMedCentralPubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Soproni K, Miklósi Á, Topál J, Csányi V (2001) Comprehension of human communicative signs in pet dogs (Canis familiaris). J Comp Psychol 115:122–126PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Stenberg G, Hagekull B (1997) Social referencing and mood modification in 1 year olds. Infant Behav Dev 20:209–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wang GD et al (2012) The genomics of selection in dogs and the parallel evolution between dogs and humans. Nat Commun 4:1860. doi: 10.1038/ncomms2814 CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • I. Merola
    • 1
    Email author
  • E. Prato-Previde
    • 1
  • M. Lazzaroni
    • 1
  • S. Marshall-Pescini
    • 1
  1. 1.Sez. di Psicologia, Dipartimento di Fisiopatologia medico-chirurgica e dei TrapiantiUniversità di MilanoMilanItaly

Personalised recommendations