Study: Human empathy extends to dogs and their facial expressions

Humans who test high on empathy tests tend to experience the facial expressions of dogs more quickly and intensely. Photo by Miiamaaria Kujala/Sanni Somppi

Feb. 3 (UPI) — Highly empathetic people experience the facial expression of dogs more intensely than their less empathetic peers.

Researchers with the University of Helsinki and Aalto University found human empathy isn’t limited to the human species. The ability to share and understand another’s feelings is an expansive trait.

“Empathy affected assessments of dogs’ facial expressions even more than previous experience of dogs, probably because the face is a biologically important stimulus for humans,” Miiamaaria Kujala, a postdoctoral researcher at Helsinki, said in a news release. “Our earlier studies have showed, however, that when considering the entire body language of dogs, previous experience of dogs increases in importance.”

In some ways, the findings aren’t all that surprising. Darwin noted similarities between the facial expressions of different mammal species. Numerous studies have illuminated said similarities.

But only a few studies have examined cross-species facial expression understanding.

The findings of the latest study — published in the journal PLOS ONE — showed highly empathetic people tend to recognize the expressions of dogs more quickly, accurately and intensely than others. Researchers say it’s possible the participants are overstating the emotions expressed by the dogs.

“Empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of dogs’ facial expressions, but defining the accuracy of such assessments is currently unreliable,” Kujala said.

Previous research has shown dogs possess cross-species emotional intelligence, too.


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