How good are you at assessing your animal’s emotional state?

I recently did a little experiment on Facebook.

First, my friends and followers helped me name the company’s new mascot, and they also told me what species he was.

Apparently, he’s a racado (rat-cat-dog), and his name is Willis.

The experiment that many people helpfully participated in consisted of assessing his emotional state in different images on my Facebook page.

Meet Willis. What emotional states is he in?

I must admit, not all my friends and followers saw the point in this exercise – I intentionally didn’t explain where I wanted to go with the little experiment. Someone said she thought it was plain silly and expressed her disappointment in no uncertain terms.

I had three main reasons for doing this.

Reason 1.

First, I was curious to see the extent to which you’d agree about the emotional expressions of an unknown fictional character. If I use images of Willis in my teaching, will people understand what emotional state I’m trying to illustrate?

The answer: for most of those 12 images, yes – for others, no. Watch the video below to find which image bombed completely..!

Reason 2.

The second, and most important reason, was to guide people through an exercise that would, perhaps, make them more attuned to notice and successfully interpret their own animal’s emotional states.

Willis is fictional, and in many of the images he’s showing stereotypical human-like emotional expressions – nothing like a real animal. Still, going through the experiment might increase the likelihood of paying more attention towards the real animals in your care. Noticing their emotional states.

I could be wrong though..?

Is that what happened, for you, when you went through the excercise, or after watching the film below?

After looking at Willis and trying to assess his level of arousal and pleasantness, did you look at your own animals differently? Let us know in the comments’ section!

Reason 3.

The third reason was that I wanted to introduce Core Affect Space, a very useful model of emotions, in a practical way. After all, emotions are incredibly important. Emotional experiences form personalities, and impact behaviour and welfare profoundly – and the Core Affect Space helps explain why.

I summarize the main results, and why they’re important, in the video below.

(If you missed the chance to vote and you want to do the exercise yourself, just pause whenever you see a new image of Willis and think to yourself “how aroused is Willis on a scale from one to ten? How pleasant is this on a scale one to ten?” And then you can immediately see how you compare to the others. )

Here are some leading questions:

  • what does your animal look like when he’s in a highly aroused, pleasant emotional state?
  • what does he look like in a highly aroused, unpleasant state?
  • how about low arousal, pleasant?
  • and finally, low arousal, unpleasant?

Even though Willis may look nothing like your animal, you may be more observant on how your animal’s ears, eyes, muscle tension, body posture, voice, pelage and tail carriage varies with his emotional state.

Learn more about Core Affect Space over here.


I teach about how to build better relationships and help animals thrive with humans through online courses. If you want to get notified whenever these courses are available, just sign up below! I’ll also keep you posted on upcoming blog posts, silly experiments,  and free webinars.

11 Replies to “How good are you at assessing your animal’s emotional state?”

  1. My dogs have at least 50 shades of all their colours.. I think low arousal, pleasant is easiest to note, face muscles soft, hair down, eyes medium. Low unpleasant is difficult for me to recognize – my dogs seem to be high also when there.. head lower, turning away, body position also low. High and unpleasant then: the body is stiff, hair up, head high and alert, eyes wide, teeth showing. High and pleasant they move a lot, tail goes round, mouth open, paws going, face is open and the tongue shows, giving kisses.

  2. what does your animal look like when he’s in a highly aroused, pleasant emotional state?
    Chasing a toy or playing with other dogs

    what does he look like in a highly aroused, unpleasant state?
    Fearful, ears back, lowered body posture, tail tucked, pacing…

    how about low arousal, pleasant?
    Resting, grooming, gentle petting

    and finally, low arousal, unpleasant?
    Nail clipping, taking her pils.
    She takes her pill willingly with butter, but I wouldn’t say she’s happy about it. She just knows she’ll get her breakfast after she takes her pill (Premack’s principle…)

  3. Maybe some day there could be an app for determining how much time an animal is spending on one side or the other of the x axis!

    I would think that not just time spent , but intensity of emotion would be part of the equation of welfare as well.

  4. My big bossy baby barely moves his face muscles. Even in his earliest pictures, he is looking off into space wondering what is going on. He appears to be at a low level of arousal and not committing to a valence.

  5. I actually think this was great exercise for making people focus and for people who tend to anthromorphize; make them take the step further to find the defining characteristic.
I think that most people who are dog lovers do not realize that given how much time dogs spend watching us, the dogs are ready to move before we complete a thought.

    My main concern with Willis is that I felt his eyes reminded me more of equine eyes, though not in their placement. The rest of his face was basically frozen.

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