Did That Dog Just Smile at You?

New research confirms Darwin's claim that animals express emotions like humans.

ByABC News
May 11, 2010, 5:43 PM

May 11, 2010 — -- You come home after work and the family pooch greets you, grinning ear to ear.

That's a true expression of emotion, right? Your dog is really showing she is happy to see you? Most likely, according to new research that for the first time documents and catalogues changes in the facial expression of laboratory mice in response to a particular emotion, pain.

And although a dog is different from a mouse, all pets probably express emotions in much the same way that humans do, according to Jeffrey Mogil, a psychologist and neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, senior author of a study published online in the journal Nature Methods.

The finding may not be all that surprising, because we all know our pets love us and express that emotion unconditionally, but it has been largely a matter of faith ever since Charles Darwin published his book, "The Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals," way back in 1872.

Oddly enough, there is still much debate over whether animals really feel human-like emotions, but Mogil is confident that his research shows that for at least one emotion -- pain -- mice feel it, and express it, in a way that is surprisingly similar to the way humans show they are in pain, which Darwin also predicted.

"It's always good when you can confirm a prediction of Darwin," Mogil said in a telephone interview.

The great naturalist, who did more than anyone else to shape our understanding of life on earth, loved his dog and knew whereof he spoke.

"But man himself cannot express love and humility by external signs so plainly as does a dog, when with drooping ears, hanging lips, flexuous body, and wagging tail, he meets his beloved master," Darwin said in his book on animal emotions, an international bestseller as soon as it rolled off the presses. "Nor can these movements in the dog be explained by acts of volition or necessary instincts, any more than the beaming eyes and smiling cheeks of a man when he meets an old friend."

Since all species share a common ancestor if you go back far enough, Darwin reasoned that humans would use the same muscles as other animals to express emotions, and the new research confirms that.