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EMOMETER: Developing an Integrated Toolbox for the Assessment of Emotional Functioning in Dogs

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - EMOMETER (EMOMETER: Developing an Integrated Toolbox for the Assessment of Emotional Functioning in Dogs)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2020-09-30

As men's best friends with multifunctional societal roles, dogs have great social and economic value. Along with being family pets and companions they also fulfil traditional and newly introduced working roles (e.g. as protection, herding or assistance dogs). The safeguarding of dog welfare and satisfactory human-dog interactions requires appropriate interpretation of dogs’ emotional states. Misinterpretation can lead to suffering in the dogs and possible physical harm to humans. We, however, know very little about the complex emotional process in dogs. This EMOMETER (short for EMOtionMETER) project had the overarching goal of developing an integrated toolbox (a range of behavioural, cognitive and physiological measures) for emotion assessment, and providing the first systematic study of multi-component emotional functioning in dogs.

The research findings form a tool to evaluate and shape realistic expectations of dog emotional states. They contribute significantly in our understanding of dogs’ capability for processing and responding to emotional signals, such as subtle human expressions. This has significant practical implications for various human-dog interactions, and dog welfare. The development of such an integrated toolbox for dogs will pave the way for emotion assessment in a variety of animal species in everyday settings and will ensure Europe remains at the forefront of animal emotion and welfare research.
The project included three objectives. Objective 1 was the development of ITME (an integrated toolbox for measurement of dog emotions), which combines a range of behavioural, cognitive and physiological measures. We have overcome key challenges associated with comparability, sensitivity, specificity and generality of different measures. Extensive piloting have been conducted for several new technological devices and their combination in assessing emotion activation, such as (1) establishing a protocol to measure electrodermal responses from dog paws, a never previously exploited methodology and hence a novel technological advance in animal emotion research; (2) exploring the suitability of hormonal activation for inclusion in the ITME (even though hormone measures had inadequate temporal dependency with other fast measures, salivary alpha-amylase, a salivary protein and until then not exploited biomarker in dogs, proved to be an excellent candidate for measuring emotional activations in dogs by having advantages over other glucocorticoids like cortisol as not being unidirectional and hence indicating emotional valence); (3) identifying and integrating several physiological, behavioural and cognitive measures targeting individual components of the multi-component emotional functioning in dogs. After the extensive testing, the identified measures for the proof-of-concept ITME include heart rate, heart rate variability, breathing rate, electrodermal response in combination with motor expressions (especially laterality of these expressions), behavioural tendencies (e.g. physical activities) and cognitive appraisal (e.g. attentional states).

After the development of a working prototype, Objective 2 aimed to initially validate and refine the ITME. With a small sample of dogs during repeated every-day settings like greeting, play, food retrieval, petting, reunion and separation, suddenness or threatening approaches, the functionality of the ITME regarding temporal dependencies and sensitivity to emotional activation was shown in a proof-of-concept. Objective 3 consisted of the application of the ITME: assessing dogs’ sensitivity to subliminal emotional cues. The preparation work, including experimental setup (e.g. touch screen, eye-tracker), testing protocol and dog training, has been initiated and partially completed.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the laboratory-based person-contact research activities in Objectives 2 and 3 were significantly disrupted and could not be continued. Subsequently, four large-scale citizen science experiments have been developed from the original objectives to allow dog owners to test their dogs at home.

Experiment 1 investigated whether different personality/temperament characteristics (e.g. aggressiveness) was correlated with dogs’ paw preference in different motor tasks. Initial analysis did not reveal any clear correlation between pawedness in dogs and their personality. Experiment 2 investigated the possible function and cause of head tilting in dogs. Contrary to the common belief, our analysis showed the occurrence of head tilting is independent of breed appearance or dog sociability; but is dependent on the origin of the stimuli, with higher occurrence frequencies in response to auditory cues of dogs and cats compared to human voices of no direct relevance (angry or happy speech). Experiment 3 investigated submissive grinning in dogs, an ambiguous behaviour commonly displayed during greeting. Our analysis revealed that submissive grinning is generally left lateralized and is likely to be associated with emotional activation and communication. Experiment 4 compared dogs’ behavioural responses to their owners’ facial expressions (happiness, anger, sadness and neutral) under different viewing conditions (i.e. fully visible face vs partially occluded over the eyes (wearing sunglasses), the mouth (wearing face mask) or both). We showed wearing face mask significantly impacts on human-dog communication.

Alongside the communication and dissemination of the results via social media channels (@dogemotion) and the laboratory homepage (http://emometer.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk) several research publications with open access are currently under preparation.
Although the full validation has not been fully completed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the developed working prototype of the ITME is the first proof-of-concept for a toolbox, integrating a range of behavioural, cognitive and physiological measures, that is able to assess emotional state and functioning in dogs. For the first time, it has been shown that salivary alpha-amylase concentration can serve as a bidirectional biomarker to measure emotional valence, lateralized motor activation can serve as a simple tool to measure emotion communication in dogs, and electrodermal activity from dog paws can be used to measure acute emotional activation in dogs.

Once fully validated, the ITME will have substantial academic impact, as the assessment and understanding of animal emotion is important to scientists in disciplines such as affective neuroscience, psychology, ethology, and animal cognition, behaviour and welfare. It will also have significant practical implications for human-dog interactions and animal welfare more broadly. It will provide great scope for knowledge transfer such as enabling improvements in dog training protocols and interventions, and for education the public with the aims of reducing dog bite-related incidents and increasing dog re-home rate. This will directly impact on people and organisations working with dogs including general public, vets, dog trainers, healthcare professionals, charities and policy makers. Furthermore, it will pave the way for emotion assessment in a variety of animal species in everyday settings (e.g. domestic and farm animals).
example of the developed setup