The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

People assume dogs’ emotions based on face shape

Insight into common biases based on dogs’ appearance could help rehoming efforts.

People attribute emotions to dogs depending on the shape of the animals’ faces, research shows.

Dogs with medium-length noses, such as beagles, are most likely to be associated with a positive frame of mind by people, according to a survey of photos of dogs.

By contrast, long-faced dogs such as greyhounds and whippets were attributed negative emotions more often than moderately shaped or short-faced dogs such as pugs.

The findings could help rehoming shelters to optimise their public profiles of dogs, by promoting positive aspects of dogs whose face shape may be associated with negative emotions, the study authors suggest.

Scientists from the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, who carried out the study, were surprised by the outcomes.

Researchers had expected people to attribute complex emotions, such as compassion or empathy, to short-faced dogs more commonly than other breeds.

They had expected that the breeds’ facial similarity to babies, such as larger, forward-facing eyes, may lead people to attribute them more human-centric emotions. However, the team found no evidence of this.

They suggest the findings may reflect the familiarity of moderately faced dogs, which may have come to be viewed positively.

Large-scale survey

Researchers carried out Facebook surveys of almost 2,500 people to investigate their expectations of dogs’ emotions, based on still images of dogs. They also examined dog owners’ perceptions of their own dogs’ emotional experiences.

They found that head shape affects how positively human observers interpret the dog’s feelings.

In the first study of its kind, dogs with moderately shaped skulls were seen by respondents as expressing more positive emotions, more often, than long-nosed or flat face dogs.

Long-nosed, narrow-faced dogs were attributed most negative emotional expressions.

Owner perceptions of their own dog’s emotions weren’t influenced by their dog’s head shape, however, indicating that the results were not based on appearance alone.

Researchers say the findings are important given, for example, the potential for people to assign positive emotions to dogs that may be in fear or distress, and possible prejudice against dogs assumed to have less favourable moods.

Their study, published in Animals, was carried out with the University of New England, Australia, and the Royal Veterinary College.

Given that people’s perceptions may influence aspects of dog ownership, including how they care for the animals, it is important to understand more to protect dog welfare. It would be helpful to examine further whether these biases impact an owner’s training practices and other aspects of canine husbandry.

Bonita BrincatRoyal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies

Related links

Scientific publication

About the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies 

The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies is a one-of-a-kind centre of excellence in clinical activity, teaching and research. Our purpose-built campus, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Pentland Hills Regional Park, is home to more than eight hundred staff and almost fourteen hundred students, all of whom contribute to our exceptional community ethos. 

The School comprises: 

The Roslin Institute 

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Security 

The Roslin Innovation Centre 

The Hospital for Small Animals 

Equine Veterinary Services 

Farm Animal Services 

Easter Bush Pathology 

The Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education 

We represent the largest concentration of animal science-related expertise in Europe, impacting local, regional, national and international communities in terms of economic growth, the provision of clinical services and the advancement of scientific knowledge.