Last year, on the drive home from our annual vacation in Bar Harbor, Maine, our 11-year-old Brittany, Vinny suddenly and inexplicable awoke from a sound sleep and began to tremble, pant, pace, and obsessively lick at the sides of his travel crate. When I crawled back over the seat to find out what was wrong, Vinny’s eyes were “squinty” and he avoided looking at me as he continued to lick and pant. Mike immediately pulled over to a rest area and we got Vinny out of the car. As soon as he was on the ground and moving about, Vinny relaxed, looked at us calmly, gave each of us a nice Brittany hug, and off we went for a little walk. Perplexed, we thought that maybe he had to eliminate (nope, no urgency there), was feeling carsick (no signs), or had a bad dream (who knows?). Within less than a minute, our boy was his typical happy self, showing no signs at all of distress. We loaded all of the dogs back into the car and Vinny continued the journey home with no further incident. We still are not sure what triggered this odd stress episode in our boy. He has had one (equally perplexing) recurrence since, continues to be healthy and happy, and we continue to monitor him carefully both at home and when he is traveling with us.
Recognizing Stress and Fear
It is important for dog owners to recognize and respond to signs of stress and fear in our dogs. If we are sensitive to their emotional states and are accurate in our interpretations, we can respond appropriately to situations in which a dog is uncomfortable, stressed, or frightened. Because nonspecific signs of stress can be the first signs of illness or injury, attending to these promptly may help us to get our dogs the medical attention that they need before conditions worsen or escalate into an emergency. It is well-known that perceiving and understanding the emotions of others is a basic human social skill. We use these perceptions on a daily basis when we interact with other people – family members, friends, and even strangers. Interestingly, while most of us are capable on some level of reading the emotional states of other humans, studies have shown that these abilities vary tremendously among individuals. Similarly, because many share our lives with dogs, it follows that we use these same skills when interpreting the emotions of our canine friends.
However, until recently, the accuracy of our perceptions of dogs’ emotional states had not been studied. Two research studies examined the cues that we use and our levels of accuracy when we perceive fear and stress in our canine companions.
Study 1: The first was conducted by researchers in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University in New York (1). The study team produced a series of video clips of dogs and embedded them in an on-line survey. Participants viewed the videos and then were asked to classify each dog’s emotional state using one of five possible descriptors (angry, fearful, happy, sad, or neutral). The first four of these are called “primary emotions” and were selected because research has supported the existence of these emotions in dogs and other animals. Although the study participants had 5 choices, the videos in the study only showed dogs demonstrating two possible emotions, either happiness or fear. All of the videos had been pre-categorized into the two emotion categories by a panel of dog behavior experts prior to the start of the study. After identifying each dog’s emotion, participants were asked to describe the specific features of the dog that they felt led them to their conclusion. For example, if a person classified a dog as showing happiness, she might say that the dog’s facial expression, ear set, and wagging tail were important features that conveyed this state to her. Last, the participants were asked to rate the level of difficulty that they experienced while attempting to interpret the emotions of each dog and to provide an estimate of overall confidence in their accuracy.
Results: Over 2000 people completed the survey and were divided into four dog experience categories based upon their dog ownership and professional histories. These were non-owners, owners, dog professionals with less than 10 years of experience, and professionals with more than 10 years of experience. It was somewhat surprising to find that the vast majority of people who completed the survey, more than 90 percent, correctly identified happy dogs in the video clips, regardless of the person’s level of dog experience. This means that most people, even those who have never owned a dog, could look at a happy dog and see…..a happy dog! This is good news.
However, when it came to recognizing fear in dogs, the news was not quite so positive. While more than 70 percent of dog professionals correctly identified the fearful dogs, this proportion dropped to 60 percent of dog owners, and to only 35 percent of non-owners. Put another way, this means that 40 percent of dog owners and 65 percent of non-owners were unable to correctly identify signs of fear and stress in an unfamiliar dog. Moreover, a substantial number of the non-owners (17 percent, or about one in six people) misclassified a fearful dog as a happy dog. This statistic is especially troubling, given the potential dangerous outcome of such mistakes. A person who approaches a dog who they believe to be friendly but who in effect is fearful, will at the very least increase the dog’s fear and distress and could potentially cause a defensive response in the dog, leading to a snap or bite. The features of the dogs that participants used to make their decisions also varied with experience level. A person’s tendency to focus on a dog’s facial features (eyes, mouth, ears) increased significantly along with experience. Inexperienced participants used primarily the dog’s tail and body posture to inform them about the dog’s emotional state. Conversely, more experienced people identified both facial expressions and body postures as important features when assessing a dog.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the results of this study are consistent with studies of human abilities to perceive and interpret the expression of emotions in other people. We are generally more sensitive to and more accurate at interpreting happy facial expressions in other people than we are when responding to fearful expressions. Moreover, while social experience seems to have little effect upon our responses to happy faces (we show a proficiency to do this at a very young age), having varied and extensive social experience is an important factor in determining our success at perceiving fear and stress in other people. In dogs, this study tells us that dog-related training and experience enhance our tendency to pay attention to dogs’ facial expressions along with their body postures and enhances our ability to correctly perceive fear.
Study 2: While the first study provided a general test of how people perceive fear in unfamiliar dogs, the second examined the ability of dog owners to recognize signs of stress in their own dogs (2). This study was conducted by researchers at the University of Pisa in Italy with a group of almost 1200 dog owners recruited through veterinary clinics. Participants first completed a questionnaire in which they were asked about stress in dogs and its potential health and behavioral consequences. They then identified what they believed to be signs of stress in dogs and estimated the level of stress in their own dog.
Results: More than half of the owners (60 %) were found to have a clear understanding of what stress is and how it can affect a dog’s emotional state and health. However, about 20 percent of owners (one in five) believed that experiencing stress had no negative physical or emotional consequences on dogs. (In other words, while they agreed that it occurred, they thought it was no big deal). The behaviors that owners most frequently identified as reflecting stress in their dog included trembling, whining/crying, excessive barking, and panting. In contrast, very few owners identified more subtle behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, turning away, yawning, nose licking, or yawning as signs of stress in dogs. Those owners who self-reported as being highly concerned with their dog’s stress level were more likely to identify these less obvious signs as important. Overall though, owners tended to miss many of the facial expressions (squinty eyes, avoiding eye contact, changes to ear set, retracted commissures) that most trainers immediately look for when they are assessing a dog’s stress level. Like the first study, this suggests that it is these more subtle facial cues of stress and fear that may be missed if a person is only paying attention to the more obvious body posture signs.
Take Away for Dog Folks
These two studies provide complementary information about the behavior cues that people pay attention to when attempting to decipher a dog’s emotional state. The first showed that even inexperienced people were able to correctly identify a dog who is happy and relaxed. However, perceptions of fear were strongly correlated to how much prior experience a person has had with dogs. As experience level increased, not only were people more likely to be correct, but they also were more likely to pay attention to a dog’s facial expressions than were people who did not spend much time with dogs. We also learned that dog owners are more likely to focus attention on their dog’s body posture, vocalizations and movements than on the more subtle signs of stress that involve a dog’s facial expressions and eyes.
Why it matters: Accurately recognizing fear and stress in dogs is an important skill set to have. Understanding our own dog’s emotional state allows us to respond by helping him out of situations that cause fear and reducing or eliminating triggers of stress when they are under our control. For trainers and behaviorists, working with owners who are sensitive to their dog’s stress response promotes the development of a more effective training and management plan. On a societal level we all benefit from a universal understanding of the behaviors, body postures and facial expressions that convey happiness versus fear or stress in dogs. Correctly interpreting a dog’s behavior is always enhanced by attending to both body posture and facial expressions. However, interpretation of dogs’ facial expressions may not come naturally to many people. This knowledge emphasizes the importance of teaching the subtleties of canine facial expressions in training classes, behavior education courses, and bite prevention programs. Moreover, the statistic suggesting that one in five owners do not consider the effects of stress in their dogs to be of negative consequence tells us that education is also needed regarding the health and welfare impacts of stress and fear on our dogs’ well-being and quality of life.
Here at home, Mike and I are still uncertain about what caused Vinny’s acute stress response during our vacation trip. As Vinny has aged he has become somewhat more sound sensitive, which is not unusual in senior dogs. However, even though we responded quickly at the time and he apparently recovered, we did not learn enough from the episode to determine a possible underlying cause. Perhaps we will never know. Regardless, I do know that paying attention to all of Vinny’s signs – body language, facial expressions, and eyes, will help me to understand him, care for him, and love him as best we can.
- Wan M, Bolger N, Champagne FA. (2012) Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PLoS ONE 7(12): e51775. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051775
- Mariti C, Gazzano A, Moore JL, Baragli P, Chelli L, Sighieri C. (2012) Perception of dogs’ stress by their owners. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 7:213-219.
NOTE: A version of this article was published in the December 2014 issue of Whole Dog Journal and is also included in my newest book, Beware the Straw Man: The Science Dog Explores Dog Training Fact & Fiction“.