Article image

Age and experience help young kids recognize dog emotions

In an intriguing exploration of age and its role in recognizing nonverbal communication, a recent study finds that older kids, as well as those who have had pet dogs, possess a superior ability to interpret dog emotions.

This research casts new light on how we, as humans, decode and understand the facial expressions of man’s best friend, with a particular focus on aggression.

Led by Heini Törnqvist from the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, the research team revealed these fascinating findings in the open-access scientific journal PLOS ONE on July 26, 2023.

How kids interpret dog emotions

A significant finding was that four-year-old children had a lesser ability to correctly identify aggressive dog expressions compared to older children and adults.

Understanding emotions through facial expressions is a crucial element of nonverbal communication across species. Previous studies have suggested that children between the ages of three and five may struggle to interpret dog emotions, more so than older children and adults.

However, Törnqvist and her team believe that further investigation is necessary to shed light on how age and previous experience with dogs affect this ability.

In order to deepen our understanding of these aspects, the researchers carried out a study with a diverse group of participants. This group included 34 adults, 28 four-year-old children, and 31 six-year-old children.

Each participant was shown various images on a computer screen that depicted different expressions on both dog and human faces. They were then tasked with rating each expression according to happiness, anger, positivity, negativity, and the level of emotional arousal.

What the research team learned

The results mirrored previous research in that people of all ages, and those with past dog experience, gave roughly similar ratings of the images. Yet, interestingly enough, some statistical differences emerged between the groups.

Adults and six-year-old children, regardless of whether they had previous dog experience, were more accurate in recognizing aggressive dog faces than four-year-olds. However, the four and six-year-olds exhibited similar competencies when recognizing human expressions.

The study found that children perceived aggressive dog expressions as more positive and less emotionally arousing than adult participants. Those who had no experience with pet dogs also rated aggressive dog expressions more positively than those with such experience.

Strikingly, children also rated aggressive dog expressions as more positive and less arousing compared to aggressive human expressions.

This suggests that the ability to correctly recognize dog emotions, particularly aggression, may improve with age. This improvement could potentially stem from both an increased exposure to dogs and the maturation of brain structures responsible for recognizing expressions.

The research provides a valuable foundation for future exploration. Continued research in this area could enrich our understanding and inform efforts to foster better interactions between children and dogs.

However, as Törnqvist and her team emphasized, the youngest participants in their study, the four-year-olds, especially struggled with correctly identifying aggressive dog expressions. They observed that these children rated aggressive dogs “as significantly more positive and lower in arousal than adults”, highlighting the need for further study and potentially new approaches to enhancing child-dog interactions.

More about dog emotions

Dog emotions encompass the range of psychological states experienced by dogs. Dogs, much like their human companions, possess the ability to feel a variety of emotions including joy, fear, anger, and sadness.

While the complete emotional spectrum of dogs is still an ongoing area of study, our current understanding largely stems from behavioral observations and neuroscientific research.

Basic dog emotions


Dogs exhibit joy in various ways, often through physical actions and postures. Common signs of joy in dogs include wagging tails, playful behavior, and expressive eyes. A dog might jump, run around, or show its belly as playful expressions of joy.


Dogs, as prey animals, can experience fear in response to perceived threats or stressful situations. Signs of fear may include whimpering, cowering, or attempting to escape. A dog may also show submissive behaviors such as lowering its body or tail, or it might freeze in place.


Dogs usually display anger when they feel threatened or challenged. Aggressive behavior, such as growling, snarling, or baring teeth, often signifies anger in dogs. However, it is essential to understand that these signs can also indicate fear or anxiety.


Although it’s harder to detect, dogs can feel sadness. This emotion often manifests in changes to a dog’s behavior, such as loss of appetite, lethargy, or less interest in activities they once enjoyed.

Advanced dog emotions

Scientific consensus is less clear on whether dogs experience more complex emotions such as jealousy, guilt, or empathy. Some studies suggest dogs may exhibit behaviors consistent with these emotions, but further research is necessary.


Dogs may show signs of jealousy when their owners give attention to other pets or people. These signs can include pushing between the owner and the source of jealousy or acting out for attention.


While many dog owners believe their pets can feel guilt, scientific studies suggest dogs may simply be responding to their owner’s disappointment or anger. The “guilty look” often attributed to guilt may be a response to perceived punishment.


Some studies suggest dogs can show empathy towards humans and other dogs. Dogs often seem to respond to their owner’s emotions, providing comfort when they sense sadness or distress.

Recognizing and responding to dog emotions

Recognizing dog emotions requires careful observation of their body language, vocalizations, and behavior. It’s important to understand that dogs communicate their feelings differently than humans. Regular interaction and familiarity with a specific dog can also enhance our ability to interpret its emotions accurately.

Responding appropriately to dog emotions involves respecting their feelings and providing comfort or space as needed. Training based on positive reinforcement encourages good behavior without causing fear or anxiety. If a dog shows signs of severe or chronic stress, fear, or aggression, it’s crucial to seek advice from a veterinarian or a professional dog behaviorist.

In summary, dog emotions are a complex and fascinating area of study. Our understanding of how dogs feel and express their emotions is continuously evolving.

Recognizing and responding appropriately to these emotions can significantly enhance the bond between dogs and their human companions, leading to a more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day