Dogs may have evolved to han­dle our bad tem­pers

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Matt McFar­land

Man’s best friend has a clear strat­egy for deal­ing with an­gry own­ers— look away.

New re­search shows that dogs limit their eye con­tact with an­gry hu­mans, even as they tend to stare down up­set ca­nines. The sci­en­tists sug­gest this may be an at­tempt to ap­pease hu­mans, that evolved as dogs were do­mes­ti­cated and ben­e­fited from avoid­ing con­flicts with hu­mans.

To con­duct the tests, Univer­sity of Helsinki re­searchers trained 31 dogs to rest in front of a video screen. Fa­cial pho­tos— show­ing threat­en­ing, pleas­ant and neu­tral ex­pres­sions — were dis­played on the screen for 1 ½ sec­onds. Nearby cam­eras tracked the dogs’ eye move­ments.

Dogs in the study looked most at the eyes of hu­mans and other dogs to sense their emo­tions. When dogs looked at ex­pres­sions of an­gry ca­nines, they lin­gered more on the mouth, per­haps to in­ter­pret the threat­en­ing ex­pres­sions. And when look­ing at an­gry hu­mans, they tended to avert their gaze. Dogs may have learned to de­tect threat signs from hu­mans and re­spond in an ap­peas­ing man­ner, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Sanni Somppi. Avoid­ing con­flicts may have helped dogs— which are the most pop­u­lar pet in the United States— de­velop bet­ter bonds with hu­mans.

The re­searchers also note that dogs scan faces holis­ti­cally to sense how peo­ple are feel­ing, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on a given fea­ture. They sug­gest this in­di­cates that dogs aren’t sens­ing emo­tions from a sin­gle fea­ture, but piec­ing to­gether in­for­ma­tion from all fa­cial fea­tures just as hu­mans do.

The find­ings were pub­lished in the sci­en­tific jour­nal PlosOne.

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