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Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food?


Although many studies have investigated domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) use of human communicative cues, little is known about their use of humans’ emotional expressions. We conducted a study following the general paradigm of Repacholi in Dev Psychol 34:1017–1025, (1998) and tested four breeds of dogs in the laboratory and another breed in the open air. In our study, a human reacted emotionally (happy, neutral or disgust) to the hidden contents of two boxes, after which the dog was then allowed to choose one of the boxes. Dogs tested in the laboratory distinguished between the most distinct of the expressed emotions (Happy–Disgust condition) by choosing appropriately, but performed at chance level when the two emotions were less distinct (Happy–Neutral condition). The breed tested in the open air passed both conditions, but this breed’s differing testing setup might have been responsible for their success. Although without meaningful emotional expressions, when given a choice, these subjects chose randomly, their performance did not differ from that in the experimental conditions. Based on the findings revealed in the laboratory, we suggest that some domestic dogs recognize both the directedness and the valence of some human emotional expressions.

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  1. We are grateful for this suggestion to two anonymous reviewers.

  2. We are grateful for this suggestion to an anonymous reviewer.


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We thank Martina Neumann, Ines Neuhof, and Julia Riedel for help conducting this research. We further thank Alexandra Rosati and three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David Buttelmann.

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Buttelmann, D., Tomasello, M. Can domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) use referential emotional expressions to locate hidden food?. Anim Cogn 16, 137–145 (2013).

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