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Dogs can discriminate human smiling faces from blank expressions

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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.

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Correspondence to Takefumi Kikusui.

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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)

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Nagasawa, M., Murai, K., Mogi, K. et al. Dogs can discriminate human smiling faces from blank expressions. Anim Cogn 14, 525–533 (2011).

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