Dogs can copy each other’s expressions just like humans – study

© Alexander Natruskin
It turns out that it is not only humans who can imitate one another's faces: Dogs also find the activity fascinating, a new study has revealed.

Dogs tend to ape one another’s facial gestures in a phenomenon known as “emotional contagion,” new research conducted by a group of Italian scientists from the Natural History Museum, University of Pisa suggests.

Emotional contagion is a basic tool which humans, as well as non-human primates, use to get along with people. It is an individual’s ability to understand the feelings of others, a key point of empathy that so far has not been proven to be present in dogs.

In other words, dogs not only have a very wide range of dozens of facial expressions, but can also mimic those of other dogs, using the skill just like humans do – for bonding.

Apparently, dogs picked up the knowledge of how to appeal to others when they stopped being wild and were tamed by humans, researchers suggest.

“We demonstrated that rapid mimicry is present in dogs and it is an involuntary, automatic and split-second mirroring of other dogs,” lead researcher Dr Elisabetta Palagi said, according to The Daily Telegraph.

These kind of abilities are regarded as constituting the first level of empathy.

“A dog while playing with another dog can read their motivation and the emotional state of the other dog by mimicking the same expression and body movement of the other dog,” Dr Palagi told BBC News.

“This phenomenon is present also in humans and in other primate species.”

The research conducted in cooperation with the Unit of Cognitive Primatology and Primate Center in Rome included videotaping dogs playing in a park in Palermo.

After analyzing 50 hours of video the scientists came to a conclusion that “rapid mimicry,” only a split-second long, is an automatic response rather than the result of training.

“Domestic dogs are exquisite readers of body-language, both that of other dogs, and, uniquely, our own - which is why they're so easy to train,” Dr John Bradshaw of the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science said, adding that further research is needed to 

The next stage of the research will involve wolves, in experiments which may help the Italian scientists see the difference between the attitudes of the two species towards humans.