Empathetic People Make the Best Dog Whisperers

Photo: Ayako Tamura/Getty Images

The most reliable indicator of how well you can understand your dog is just practice, plain and simple: People who have owned dogs, or spent time around dogs, are generally more adept at decoding canine cues than those who shy away from anything furry and slobbery. But according to a study in the journal PLOS ONE, experience alone does not a dog whisperer make: Your personality — and, specifically, how empathetic you are — plays a role, too.

The authors recruited 34 volunteers, most of whom had interacted with dogs in some significant capacity: 26 had grown up with a family dog, 16 owned a dog themselves, and 15 were “active in dog-related hobbies,” like hunting or obedience training. For the first part of the study, the researchers showed their volunteers a series of images showing human and animal faces, asking them to rate each one on a scale of positive to negative, place their reaction to the image on a spectrum of emotional arousal, and rank the levels of happiness, sadness, surprise, disgust, fear, and anger it depicted. Afterward, participants filled out a series of questionnaires to measure the Big Five personality traits, their empathy toward other people, and their empathy toward animals.

The results: For better or worse, volunteers generally read the dogs about as well as they read other humans. Those who scored more highly on the empathy tests also tended to rate both dog and human faces as more — more positive or negative, more highly emotional, more emotionally arousing — and to reach their decisions more quickly.

“The results imply that humans perceive human and dog facial expression in a similar manner, and the perception of both species is influenced by psychological factors of the evaluators,” the study authors wrote. “Especially empathy affects both the speed and intensity of rating dogs’ emotional facial expressions.”

Their conclusion came with a caveat, though: Just because empathetic people made swifter, more intense judgments doesn’t necessarily mean those judgments were correct. “Empathy speeds up and intensifies the assessment of dogs’ facial expressions, but defining the accuracy of such assessments is currently unreliable,” study co-author Miiamaaria Kujala, a researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland, said in a statement. And besides, there are ways to connect with your canine pal that don’t have any personality prerequisite: Put on some reggae tunes, coo some baby talk at it, and soon enough it may even be willing to tolerate a hug.

Empathetic People Make the Best Dog Whisperers