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


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.

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This work was supported by the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (K 84036), the Bolyai Foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the MTA-ELTE Comparative Ethology Research Group (01 031), and the ESF Research Networking Programme ‘CompCog’: The Evolution of Social Cognition (www.compcog.org) (06-RNP-020). The authors are grateful to József Topál for his help in the development of the protocol. We would like to thank all the owners and dogs who participated in this study. We also would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for all their useful comments on an earlier version of this paper.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics standard

The experiment complies with the current laws of Hungary. According to the corresponding definition by law (‘1998. évi XXVIII. Törvény’ 3. §/9.—the Animal Protection Act), non-invasive studies on dogs are currently allowed to be done without any special permission in Hungary.

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Correspondence to Borbála Turcsán.

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Turcsán, B., Szánthó, F., Miklósi, Á. et al. Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour. Anim Cogn 18, 83–94 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-014-0779-3

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  • Emotion recognition
  • Dog
  • Cooperation
  • Disgust
  • Happiness