Can Dogs Judge a Person’s Character?

Can your dog judge whether a person is good or bad? Discover the skills they use and whether they are effective at assessing someone’s character.

Mar 16, 2023By Donna Hobson
dogs judge a person character

Have you ever noticed that your dog behaves differently towards some people? These canines may be a “man’s best friend,” but that doesn’t mean they treat all people equally. Dogs possess excellent people and communication skills, and they can use these to separate the “good” people from the “bad” ones.

Discover the factors that influence your dog, whether they’re good at judging the character of a human and the surprising results of scientific research.

Can Dogs Judge a Person’s Character?

dog looking up at human
Credit: Image by Pavel Karasek on Pixabay

Dogs possess excellent social skills and can provide effective emotional support for humans; still, could they really possess the complex ability to judge a person’s character as good or bad?

They can. Dogs can discriminate against people by judging them as good or bad, kind, or unkind, friendly, or mean, frightening or soothing - and the list goes on. While some of these judgments are based on how safe or threatened your dog feels by a person, others are based on how the person treats you.

Dogs don’t only discriminate for personal gain. Sure, they’re far more likely to approach a dog-lover who they sense wants to play with them, but they’re less likely to approach someone offering a treat if that person has demonstrated mean or unkind behavior.

Remember that “good” and “bad” are subjective measures. For example, your dog might not like a person who fears them. The person, meanwhile, might have a good reason for their fear and be perfectly kind and caring. Pay attention to your dog’s instincts but listen to your own judgment too.

How Do Dogs Judge Humans?

dog eye looking
Credit: Image by Тимур Бах on Pixabay

We often underestimate dogs' skills because they cannot converse with us, but we’d do well to remember that these intelligent creatures can detect subtle human cues and react appropriately.

If a person signals that they are unfriendly or don’t like dogs, your pup will do its best to avoid them. Certain behaviors are perceived as threatening or intimidating to your dog.

These include a person looking directly into their eyes (they prefer a sideways glance or blinking) or a person approaching them head-on (particularly if their arms are extended or they’re waving them around.) Depending on the circumstance, your dog could become withdrawn or aggressive.

Additionally, dogs can understand and respond to emotional and hormonal cues. A research paper entitled “Dogs recognize dog and human emotions” demonstrated that dogs can understand human facial cues and match their face to an appropriate vocal response.

And, of course, dogs utilize their primary skill, smell, to sense moods and emotions in their humans.

What Does Science Say?

dog high five with human
Credit: Image by Robert Allmann on Pixabay

Do you believe that your dog can effectively judge humans; do you trust them to decide who is good and who is bad? Science suggests you might be right.

A study published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews concluded that dogs could assess how one human being treats another, then use this information to distinguish when somebody is being mean or rude.

In the study, the dogs watched their owners struggling to open a jar while two other people were present. In the first scenario, one person helped, and the other didn’t respond (neutral). In the second scenario, one person helped, but the other directly refused after being asked for assistance.

Following each scenario, both human volunteers offered the dog a treat. In the first scenario, the dog did not discriminate between the helper and the neutral human. But in the second scenario, the dogs did not take the treat from the human who refused to help their owner.

A similar study, using a cardboard box, replicated the results, supporting the idea that dogs judge people based on their perception of good and bad. In addition, dogs will adjust their behavior based on someone’s character rather than the reward that person offers them.

Can Dogs Judge Other Qualities in Humans?

dog lying down with girl
Credit: Image by Mylene on Pixabay

Not only can dogs discriminate good from bad, but they can also assess the effectiveness of a human being. A 2014 study published in Animal Cognition tested whether dogs would blindly follow the advice of a human.

During the experiment, a human pointed at one of two containers; one was filled with meat, and the other was empty. In the first phase, the human pointed at the baited container, in the second phase, they pointed at the empty container, and in the third phase, they pointed at the bait again.

The study found that while the dogs responded to the humans pointing in phase one, they didn’t react in phase three (after the human picked the “wrong” container).

Scientists also conducted a second experiment in which a different human initiated phase three. In this experiment, the dogs once again followed the third “point.” This rules out the idea that the dogs may have been getting bored of the task.

This study shows that dogs can differentiate a reliable human from an unreliable one and will adapt their behavior accordingly.

Donna Hobson
By Donna Hobson

Donna believes that keeping a pet is the key to a happy life. Over the years, many creatures have passed through her home - Sooty the cat, Millie the rabbit, Stuart (Little) the guinea pig, and Trixie the tortoise, alongside her pet goldfish, Zippy, who lived to the grand old age of 24 years! She currently resides with her black kitten Jinx and an aquarium full of fish and snails to entrance them both. When she is not looking after her pets, Donna enjoys researching and writing the answers to all your pet-related wonders.