Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 525–533 | Cite as

Dogs can discriminate human smiling faces from blank expressions

  • Miho Nagasawa
  • Kensuke Murai
  • Kazutaka Mogi
  • Takefumi KikusuiEmail author
Original Paper


Dogs have a unique ability to understand visual cues from humans. We investigated whether dogs can discriminate between human facial expressions. Photographs of human faces were used to test nine pet dogs in two-choice discrimination tasks. The training phases involved each dog learning to discriminate between a set of photographs of their owner’s smiling and blank face. Of the nine dogs, five fulfilled these criteria and were selected for test sessions. In the test phase, 10 sets of photographs of the owner’s smiling and blank face, which had previously not been seen by the dog, were presented. The dogs selected the owner’s smiling face significantly more often than expected by chance. In subsequent tests, 10 sets of smiling and blank face photographs of 20 persons unfamiliar to the dogs were presented (10 males and 10 females). There was no statistical difference between the accuracy in the case of the owners and that in the case of unfamiliar persons with the same gender as the owner. However, the accuracy was significantly lower in the case of unfamiliar persons of the opposite gender to that of the owner, than with the owners themselves. These results suggest that dogs can learn to discriminate human smiling faces from blank faces by looking at photographs. Although it remains unclear whether dogs have human-like systems for visual processing of human facial expressions, the ability to learn to discriminate human facial expressions may have helped dogs adapt to human society.


Dog Human facial expression Two-choice discrimination tasks Visual discrimination 

Supplementary material

Test phase: Ten sets of photographs of the smiling face and blank face of the owner were presented (OW session). The photographs were changed once each trial. The smiling face photographs were the S+ (MPG 16397 kb)

Control phase: Photographs of the same smiling face of the owner were presented simultaneously (SS session). The S+ was chosen randomly once each trial (MPG 16197 kb)


  1. Abrantes R (1987) The expression of emotions in man and canid. J Small Anim Pract 28:1030–1036CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 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
  3. Bradshaw JWS, Nott HMR (1995) Social and communication behaviour of companion dogs. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. In: Serpell JA (ed) The domestic dog, its evolution, behavior and interactions with people, 11th edn. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 115–130Google Scholar
  4. Call J, Brauer J, Kaminski J, Tomasello M (2003) Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) are sensitive to the attentional state of humans. J Comp Psychol 117:257–263PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Cellerino A, Borghetti D, Sartucci F (2004) Sex differences in face gender recognition in humans. Brain Res Bull 63:443–449PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Ekman P, Friesen WV (1975) Unmasking the face: a guide to recognizing emotions from facial clues. Prentice-Hall Englewood Cliffs, NJGoogle Scholar
  7. Fox MW (1970) A comparative study of the development of facial expressions in canids; wolf, coyote and foxes. Behaviour 36:49–73CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Gacsi M, Miklosi A, Varga O, Topal J, Csanyi V (2004) Are readers of our face readers of our minds? Dogs (Canis familiaris) show situation-dependent recognition of human’s attention. Anim Cogn 7:144–153PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Guo K, Meints K, Hall C, Hall S, Mills D (2009) Left gaze bias in humans, rhesus monkeys and domestic dogs. Anim Cogn 12:409–418PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hare B, Call J, Tomasello M (1998) Communication of food location between human and dog (Canis familiaris). Evol Commun 2:137–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Heffner H (1975) Perception of biologically meaningful sounds by dogs. J Acoust Soc Am 58:S124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Kanazawa S (1996) Recognition of facial expressions in a Japanese monkey (Macaca fuscata) and humans (Homo sapiens). Primates 37:25–38CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Lore RK, Eisenberg FB (1986) Avoidance reactions of domestic dogs to unfamiliar male and female humans in a kennel setting. Appl Anim Behav Sci 15:261–266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 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
  15. Nagasawa M, Kikusui T, Onaka T, Ohta M (2009) Dog’s gaze at its owner increases owner’s urinary oxytocin during social interaction. Horm Behav 55:434–441PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Racca A, Amadei E, Ligout S, Guo K, Meints K, Mills D (2010) Discrimination of human and dog faces and inversion responses in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Anim Cogn 13:525–533PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Range F, Aust U, Steurer M, Huber L (2008) Visual categorization of natural stimuli by domestic dogs. Animal Cognit 11:339–347CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Schwab C, Huber L (2006) Obey or not obey? Dogs (Canis familiaris) behave differently in response to attentional states of their owners. J Comp Psychol 120:169–175PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Takaoka A, Morisaki A, Fujita K (2009) Intermodal representation in dogs. J Vet Behav Clin Appl Res 4:54–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Udell MAR, Dorey NR, Wynne CDL (2010) What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions. Biol Rev 85:327–345PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Vas J, Topál J, Gácsi M, Miklósi A, Csányi V (2005) A friend or an enemy? Dogs’ reaction to an unfamiliar person showing behavioural cues of threat and friendliness at different times. Appl Anim Behav Sci 94:99–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Viranyi Z, Topál J, Gácsi M, Miklósi A, Csanyi V (2004) Dogs respond appropriately to cues of humans’ attentional focus. Behav Process 66:161–172CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Wells DL (2003) Lateralised behaviour in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Behav Process 61:27–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Wobber V, Hare B, Koler-Matznick J, Wrangham R, Tomasello M (2009) Breed differences in domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) comprehension of human communicative signals. Interact Stud 10:206–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Miho Nagasawa
    • 1
  • Kensuke Murai
    • 1
  • Kazutaka Mogi
    • 1
  • Takefumi Kikusui
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Animal Science and BiotechnologyAzabu UniversitySagamihara, Kanagawa-kenJapan

Personalised recommendations