Dog whisperers to reveal how well you really know your dog

30 October 2015

Landmark study is the first study to look at different factors that might contribute to a person's ability to interpret dog emotions.


Almost every dog owner believes they know what their pet is trying to tell them but new work by University of Sydney researchers will reveal just how well people really understand man’s best friend.

A landmark study is investigating how people interpret dog emotions and behaviour. Preliminary survey results show most of us think we’re experts—but how can we determine whether we really are, and what can we learn from the true dog whisperers?

Lead researcher, PhD candidate in the Faculty of Veterinary Science, Elyssa Payne, said hundreds of people had already done the survey, which is open for another week, with some interesting results.

“Despite 62.9 percent of respondents thus far not having an occupation that involves interacting with dogs, 78.2 percent have rated themselves as above average in their ability to interpret dog emotions,” Ms Payne said.

This is the first study to look at different factors that might contribute to a person’s ability to interpret dog emotions.

It builds on a 2013 study using photographs of dogs, in which researchers found no significant differences between the abilities of experts and non-experts. The University of Sydney’s research is now expanding on this, using videos and assessing which other psychological components may affect how an individual interprets the canine emotional state.

The new study uses University of Sydney data on farm dog personalities released this month by the Australian Government’s Rural Industries and Research Development Corporation and is the first step in characterising good dogmanship, or those commonly referred to as dog people.

Research from the University of Sydney has proposed that a dog’s emotional and attentional state can reflect that human’s dogmanship. The University has demonstrated that farmers scoring high on the conscientiousness personality dimension get the best work out of their herding dogs.

“People with good dogmanship seem to have the knack to behave in ways that capture the dogs’ attention and encourage dogs to view interactions as positive,” Ms Payne said. “So, the question arises: can these people be identified?

“In the future it is hoped that once these individuals are identified, their characteristics can indicate how we can improve our relationship with man’s best friend. We may then be able to identify the behaviours and traits that make them so successful, thereby improving the skills of people who may be more inclined to struggle.”

Participants in the survey, open to anyone who has ever interacted with a dog, can sign up to receive future results, which will provide insights into how to communicate better with dogs.

The research team has developed an interactive quiz featuring videos of dogs and owners in various situations, each with an accompanying set of questions. It is hoped that the initiative will mean that, in the future, those who struggle with dog ownership will have an additional means to hone their skills and improve aspects of their relationship with their dog.

People aged 18 and over are invited to undertake the survey, which takes no more than 30 minutes and is anonymous.

The survey is open until Monday, 9 November 2015 and can be found at

Examples of the short videos of dog behaviour, with sound muted so viewers’ interpretation is unbiased, are here  and here.

Vivienne Reiner

PhD Candidate and Casual Academic
  • Integrated Sustainability Analysis,