Dogs evaluate threatening facial expressions by their biological validity - Evidence from gazing patterns

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

Researchers

  • Sanni Somppi
  • Heini Törnqvist
  • Miiamaaria Kujala

  • Laura Hänninen
  • Christina M. Krause
  • Outi Vainio

Research units

  • University of Helsinki

Abstract

Appropriate response to companions' emotional signals is important for all social creatures. The emotional expressions of humans and non-human animals have analogies in their form and function, suggesting shared evolutionary roots, but very little is known about how animals other than primates view and process facial expressions. In primates, threat-related facial expressions evoke exceptional viewing patterns compared with neutral or positive stimuli. Here, we explore if domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) have such an attentional bias toward threatening social stimuli and whether observed emotional expressions affect dogs' gaze fixation distribution among the facial features (eyes, midface and mouth). We recorded the voluntary eye gaze of 31 domestic dogs during viewing of facial photographs of humans and dogs with three emotional expressions (threatening, pleasant and neutral). We found that dogs' gaze fixations spread systematically among facial features. The distribution of fixations was altered by the seen expression, but eyes were the most probable targets of the first fixations and gathered longer looking durations than mouth regardless of the viewed expression. The examination of the inner facial features as a whole revealed more pronounced scanning differences among expressions. This suggests that dogs do not base their perception of facial expressions on the viewing of single structures, but the interpretation of the composition formed by eyes, midface and mouth. Dogs evaluated social threat rapidly and this evaluation led to attentional bias, which was dependent on the depicted species: threatening conspecifics' faces evoked heightened attention but threatening human faces instead an avoidance response. We propose that threatening signals carrying differential biological validity are processed via distinctive neurocognitive pathways. Both of these mechanisms may have an adaptive significance for domestic dogs. The findings provide a novel perspective on understanding the processing of emotional expressions and sensitivity to social threat in non-primates.

Details

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0143047
Pages (from-to)e0143047/1-16
Number of pages16
JournalPloS one
Volume11
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed

    Research areas

  • brain research, emotional expressions, humans, dogs , chimpanzees, Face recognition

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